UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky is lighting up opposing defenses. Behind his steady arm, the Tar Heels look to continue their surge on Saturday against Virginia Tech.
Despite Louisville’s close loss last Saturday night at Clemson, Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson very much deserves to be on top of the leaderboard in the Heisman Trophy rankings as we head into the second Saturday of October.
But there’s another ACC quarterback that is hot on Jackson’s heels, no pun intended.
North Carolina signal-caller Mitch Trubisky is off to a scorching hot start to the season, leading his team to victories over ACC foes Pittsburgh and Florida State to help the Tar Heels to the Coastal division lead. With only one blemish—a loss to Georgia in the season opener, in which Nick Chubb ran for over 200 yards and penalties doomed Larry Fedora’s squad—UNC is one of the hotter teams in the country heading into yet another conference test on Saturday against Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill.
The Ohio native is coming off of a monstrous performance in the upset win in Tallahassee, where he completed 31-of-38 passes for 405 yards and three touchdowns—his third straight game with 400-plus yards and at least three touchdowns.
UNC stunned the crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium by jumping out to a 21-0 lead, with three drives covering over 70 yards. FSU stormed back to take the lead, but the Tar Heels won in dramatic fashion on a 54-yard Nick Weiler field goal as time expired. And it was Trubisky’s late-game steadiness that set UNC up for the chance to win.
After Deondre Francois ran for what many Seminole fans thought was the game-winning touchdown with less than 30 seconds left to give FSU a 35-34 lead, Trubisky guided the offense down the field on a drive that started at Carolina’s own 25-yard line. It was a situation well-suited for someone so poised and adept at adversity. Trubisky converted three fourth downs against Pittsburgh the previous week to preserve the game-winning drive in the one-point win.
The junior quarterback, who has 13 touchdown passes and has yet to throw an interception, leads the nation by completing 76 percent of his tosses.
As David Hale of ESPN.com pointed out after UNC’s win on Saturday, Trubisky joined West Virginia alumnus Geno Smith in 2012 as the only quarterbacks in the last decade to complete 75 percent of his throws with 13 or more touchdowns and no interceptions in the first five games. Of course, many college football observers were handing the Heisman to Smith early in October of that season, and we all saw that the proclamation was premature. There is, of course, plenty of football remaining in the 2016 campaign.
But Trubisky’s grace under pressure and ability to play error-free puts the Tar Heels in good position to once again claim the ACC Coastal crown.
During Wednesday’s weekly ACC coaches teleconference, Fedora described the key to his quarterback’s success.
“He’s a pretty level-headed kid,” Fedora said. “He understands the offense. He’s pretty comfortable in it, and he just takes the ball where he’s supposed to go with it.
“He lets the defense dictate where he goes. He doesn’t try to press it into places that he shouldn’t.”
Trubisky’s poise is something that will not show up in the box score when a fan opens up the sports section on Sunday morning. But the zero in the turnover section will always stand out, especially to the coaching staff.
“We asked him at the beginning of the year to take care of the football, and that’s what he’s done,” Fedora said. “And as long as he does that, just keep moving the chains, he’s giving us a chance to win football games. He’s done a tremendous job of that.”
Trubisky received only spot duty last season because the Tar Heels were in good hands with Marquise Williams, but his skill set was obvious, and he could have started at most any other school. In his most extensive action of 2015, he went 17-of-20 through the air for 312 yards and four touchdowns against Delaware. In 47 pass attempts spread across several games, he did not throw an interception. In fact, his last pick occurred on Nov. 29, 2014, against in-state rival NC State.
It’s an interception-free run that, based on the law of averages, figures to come to an end at some point. Then again, not many quarterbacks possess the composure of Trubisky, who may find himself in a shootout once again this week when the Hokies come to town. Justin Fuente’s squad has an impressive quarterback of its own in Jerod Evans, who is helping the Hokies rediscover offensive firepower after some lean later years of the Frank Beamer era.
A visit to Mark Richt’s Miami squad still looms as well, so there are challenges that stand in the way of both Trubisky’s Heisman pursuit, as well as the team’s chase of another division title.
We saw UNC go on a run last year and flirt with a possible College Football Playoff bid despite its tough start to the season. This time around, it’s a team that may be better-equipped to handle an early season slip-up. After all, it’s hard to even remember the Week 1 loss to the Dawgs.
The team ran the table in the ACC regular season last year despite a Gene Chizik defense that wasn’t exceptional. That was with Williams running the offensive show. Even though this year’s team is still just average defensively, the offense remains as potent as ever. And it’s now being led by a quarterback who is capable of big plays without turning the football over.
UNC gave Clemson a scare last season in the ACC title game before coming up short. Perhaps that championship game experience, much like Trubisky’s mop-up work from last year, will be enough to propel the Tar Heels atop the ACC, give them their first ACC title in 36 years and even a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Oh, and it also might be good enough to bring the sport’s most prestigious individual award to Chapel Hill too.