Four Downs: No. 21 North Carolina escapes San Diego State, 31-27

UNC's crowd was a big factor in its surprisingly close 31-27 win over San Diego State.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 21 North Carolina (2-0) hasn’t done a lot the first two weeks to show why they’re a ranked team. Well, except win, of course, and 2-0 is all that matters at this point. The Tar Heels escaped San Diego State (1-1) by a final of 31-27. And for the second straight week, UNC has had to come back from third-quarter deficits to get the victory.

"We didn’t play good defense. We didn’t play good on offense. We were just very, very average in our special teams," UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. "We made enough mistakes to lose the game, but we made enough plays to win the game."

The Tar Heels have struggled to click offensively early in their first two games, but it was particularly pronounced against the Aztecs, when the Tar Heels had just seven points at halftime. San Diego State used a ball-control offense, draining almost all of the play clock before snapping the ball each time. The Aztecs had the ball for 37:26 to 22:34 for UNC but ran just 10 more plays than the Tar Heels.

North Carolina just couldn’t seem to get first downs. It didn’t help when its best offensive lineman, right guard Landon Turner, went out with an injury in the second quarter. But it wasn’t really moving the ball before that.

After an 11-play, 54-yard drive to open the game that ended in a punt, the Tar Heels’ longest drive in its next five possessions was five plays, and the longest yardage-wise was 17 yards. The longest any drive took on the clock was 1:35. Punt, interception, punt, punt, punt.

"We just pushed the tempo. (San Diego State was) running different schemes at the young o-linemen. They were everywhere," UNC quarterback Marquise Williams said.

"I told them, ‘Let’s settle down. We’ve got it. The schemes, we’ve been practicing them all week. We’ve been doing a phenomenal job.’ We found a way to push tempo and we didn’t see too much blitzing anymore. When you play-action, when you get the safeties to jump, the ball is over the top, you’ve got to respect it. We found ways to make plays all night."

In the second half, the Tar Heels had nearly equaled their entire first-half yardage total midway through the third quarter; their first two drives of the second half were nine and 14 plays, respectively.

The Tar Heels were able to get their running game going a bit more, too. Freshman Elijah Hood got his first touchdown and averaged 4.3 yards a carry. He knows how important it is for UNC to run the ball.

"All of a sudden, the d-linemen stopped putting their hands up to knock down balls because they’re worried about the run a little bit. All of a sudden, the passing lanes open up and then all of a sudden we’re running and passing and we’re getting the tempo going," Hood said. "The defense is winded and we’re not because it’s just what we do. I feel like that was a major part, just getting back to the basics and getting a successful fun game going."

Then Williams got on the phone and begged his offensive coordinator Seth Littrell to take a shot. On the first play of a fourth-quarter drive, he found wide receiver Mack Hollins for a 91-yard strike.

"That opened it up. Those guys were playing 10 yards off of us. … I got on the phone and I was like, ‘Coach, please go up top one time so the guys will respect this.’ Finally, he got us one," Williams said, grinning.

Marquise Williams isn’t perfect, and there’s no question that redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky is talented. But Williams put the team on his back last season after Bryn Renner went out with a season-ending injury, and it’s becoming more and more clear that he’s the heart and soul of the offense.

Still, Trubisky did make an early appearance against the Aztecs — on the third series of the game, which came in the second quarter with the game still scoreless.

Williams had been 6-of-7 passing for 44 yards to that point with the only incompletion a close call that went to review. He also had three rushes for 19 yards.

Trubisky came in, completed his first pass for eight yards, handed the ball off and then threw an interception on a screen pass.

After that appearance from Trubisky, he didn’t play again, but Williams came back in and completed just 2-of-7 passes for 7 yards the rest of the half.

He insisted that Trubisky’s appearance (which he said was planned) didn’t disrupt his rhythm.

"I’m more excited than anybody when he’s in the game. A lot of people were like ‘Why are they doing that?’ but I love it. I’m always going to support Mitch Trubisky," Williams said. "That tip on the interception was not his fault. The defensive tackle got his hand up."

Clearly it wasn’t too disruptive — Williams was 12-of-15 for 204 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.

Trubisky is mobile, but so is Williams — and he’s a little bit more dynamic when it comes to making plays with his feet. North Carolina doesn’t want him to continue leading the team in rushing (he had 12 attempts for 63 yards), but his teammates think a run or two gets him going.

"We started using the run game a little bit, giving him some runs. I think when he runs, that gets him a little bit of a rhythm because he starts to feel comfortable and he starts to do special things in the pocket," Hood said. "Whenever he starts getting rolling like that, the defenses have just got to watch out for him."

Hollins, who caught the 91-yard touchdown, thinks it’s all about Williams feeling like he has a little help.

"I think just us being able to run the ball and kind of taking that pressure off of him where he doesn’t have to know that oh, the only way we’re going to get a first down is me throwing the ball. The only way we’re going to make a play is if I have to do it," Hollins said. "So if we can get the run game going, then we can get the pass game going and that’s what ended up happening."

It’s hard to know what to make out of UNC’s defense the first two weeks. It hasn’t been particularly impressive against either Liberty or San Diego State, but it has gotten some key stops when the team has needed them most and it has been able to both force turnovers and score off of said turnovers.

Against San Diego State, North Carolina had three interceptions, one that it returned 100 yards for a touchdown and another pick that led to a field goal. A third interception — this one by senior safety Tim Scott — sealed the North Carolina win.

San Diego State had driven to the Carolina 7-yard line before that interception. Before the Aztecs’ final drive even began, Scott and the rest of the defense knew what they had to do. They didn’t want to repeat what happened when Miami was in town for a night game in 2013, and the defense allowed an agonizingly slow drive that ended in a Miami game-winning touchdown.

"On the sideline right before that drive started, we told everybody, it’s just like the Miami game last year. It came down tot he last drive and the defense was on the field, and last year we gave it up and we lost," Scott said. "So we knew that we had to buckle down and get ready for it, and I feel like the last play showed that we were ready."

Like the rest of the game, it was pretty dicey for awhile there. The Tar Heels allowed over 500 yards to San Diego State on the game, but ultimately, they bowed up when it mattered most.

Even without senior bandit (and arguably UNC’s best playmaker) Norkeithus Otis on defense (he was out with an injury), the Tar Heels still expected better from themselves.

"He cheered us up on the sideline but having him not on the field and knowing he’s such a playmaker, it really hurt. It didn’t necessarily really hurt us, but he’s that playmaker that we have on our defense," Scott said. "He’s one of our big guys. So not having him hurt us a little bit, but we stuck through it.

"When you don’t play with effort and you don’t play full-speed every play, there’s going to be holes that open up and if you’re not there, there’ll be big gains. San Diego State exposed us with that today. I feel like we just need to run to the ball."

UNC’s "Stripe Out" promotion (alternating sections wore blue and black) was pretty successful, and the late start time (8:00 p.m. ET kick) meant more fans would show up, even on a hot, humid night.

The student section was packed well before kickoff, and though it took some of the other fans time to get to their seats, they got there. And for the most part, they stayed there.

The crowd was pretty good against Liberty, but the sell-out crowd was much livelier for the San Diego State game, and while it fell quiet at times — like when San Diego State went up 21-7 early in the third quarter — it was still a factor when it mattered.

"The crowd was amazing," Scott said, calling it one of the best crowds he’s seen at Kenan Stadium. "They were giving us energy throughout the whole game and at times, we weren’t feeding off of it. We weren’t playing as good. But towards the end of the game, I feel like we were feeding off their energy and it was getting us excited."

The Miami game was a huge letdown for the UNC faithful in 2013. It was a Thursday night game in primetime, and it was a winnable game for the Tar Heels. But they ultimately made one too many mistakes and a close loss to the Hurricanes dropped them to 1-5 before they had a bounce-back.

Another disappointing loss like that one, and maybe the fans would start to lose their enthusiasm.

Fedora credited the crowd with the win, at least in part.

"That was an unbelievable atmosphere," Fedora said. "Our guys fed off of that the entire game. We needed every single person that was in the stands. As much yelling as they did, I know they are worn out just like our guys are worn out. So I appreciate the effort they gave us tonight with that atmosphere."