In what could be described as an up and down game for UNC, the Heels struggled a bit on both sides of the ball before a 28 point third quarter fueled Carolina to a 56-29 win over the Liberty Flames.
Heading into the game there were questions regarding who would start at quarterback and how much Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky would play. Williams got the starting nod but for most of the game, Trubisky only led the offense on every third series. Williams opened the game promptly led UNC on an eight play, 61-yard drive capped off by a Bug Howard touchdown reception. It was a crisp offensive series with three Ryan Switzer touches.
As it turns out the first drive was more the exception than the rule for the Tar Heel offense in the first half. The second UNC possession which resulted from Tar Heel cornerback Tim Scott forcing a fumble after getting beat on a pass play, ended with Williams undethrowing Swtizer for an interception. Liberty wasted little time going through the open door tying the game at 7-7. Trubisky answered on his first series with a pair of completed passes and a 12-yard run on a read option to setup a Romar Morris touchdown run for a 14-7 lead.
From that point the game got a tad rocky for UNC thanks to a missed field goal, a bad snap on a punt and some porous defense. With the Tar Heels facing a fourth and three from the 26, Larry Fedora opted for a Thomas Moore 44-yard FG attempt which sailed wide right. After getting a stop, UNC's offense sputtered again but a bad snap to punter Tommy Hibbard led to a safety cutting the lead to 14-9. Liberty made the most of the opportunity and gashed the Tar Heel defense to take a 15-14 lead with 1:37 left in the half. UNC's defense, which struggled in all phases during the first half, had little answer for the Flames' running game. The defensive line was a non-factor and Liberty moved the ball at will to take a brief one point lead. UNC, with WIlliams directing the two minute drill, went 66 yards in a little over a minute to take a 21-15 halftime lead.
Matters didn't necessarily improve going into the third quarter, at least not immediately. Williams threw an interception on UNC's second drive and the next Tar Heel possession of the half saw Quinshad Davis stripped of the ball while fighting for extra yards. Liberty safety Jacob Hagen scooped up the loose ball and returned it for a touchdown giving the Flames a 22-21 lead with five minutes gone in the quarter. This game had reached a place, especially with the Tar Heel offense struggling, that Liberty started to believe there was a real chance of an upset.
Then the last six minutes of the third quarter happened and it looked something like this.
5:55: UNC's Mack Hollins catches a 33-yard TD pass from Marquise Williams. 28-22 UNC
5:42: UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer runs back a pick six. 35-22 UNC
3:47: Following a Liberty fumble, Williams rushes 15 yards for a touchdown. 42-22 UNC.
2:06: After the second Liberty fumble of the quarter, Mitch Trubisky finds Jack Tabb for his first career touchdown pass. 49-22 UNC.
Over the course of three minutes and 49 seconds UNC went from trailing 22-21 to leading by 27 points. The game, for all intents and purposes was over except no one told UNC's fifth string running back Charles Brunson that. Brunson entered the game with 3:53 left and proceeded to rattle off 54 yards and score the Heels' eight touchdown of the night. Brunson's nine carries for 54 yards made him UNC's leading rusher for the game which all of the yardage coming in one drive.
Needless to say the team performance gets a mixed review. UNC forced six Liberty turnovers but the Heels gave the ball up four times. The defense struggled at times to stop Liberty but as the game wore on the defensive play improved and was effective in the second half limited the Flames offense. UNC took advantage of Liberty's mistakes but made plenty of mistakes in its own right including a defensive substitution penalty after a timeout that resulted in a Flames first down and eventually a touchdown. The secondary had shades of the past two seasons but with three key players suspended judgement should probably be withheld on that part of the defense.
On the quarterback question, both played well enough with Trubisky looking better from a mechanics standpoint but Williams showing a little more comfort with the game itself. Ryan Switzer was heavily utilized in the offensive scheme as UNC opted to run most of the players out to the perimeter. The stable of running backs, particularly T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood were only used in spots and had it not been for Charles Brunson's late game outbursts, Marquise Williams would have been the team's leading rusher.
In short, this game had the feel of Larry Fedora and his staff being in experimentation mode. They wanted to see how certain things worked and seemingly steered clear of certain types of plays such as much of anything, rushing or passing, down the middle. It's possible Fedora and staff were not wanting show too much in this game and also trying to keep everyone healthy. Whatever the case, for UNC it was an uneven effort which is necessarily unusual for a first game. That being said, the Tar Heels will need to improve upon Saturday night's effort going against a tougher opponent next weekend.
Larry Fedora Postgame Audio