With five weeks of the college football season already in the books, teams are starting to show their true colors as they enter the real meat of conference play.
There's still plenty of time to separate from the pack, but two weeks of games in the ACC has shown that North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky is right where he belongs among the conference's elite.
Trubisky has led the Tar Heels to a 4-1 record overall (2-0 in ACC play, leading the ACC Coastal division) while putting together some pretty impressive stats along the way. The junior from Mentor, Ohio, has completed 76 percent of his passes to lead the nation, while tallying 13 touchdowns against zero interceptions.
He is also one of just three quarterbacks in the nation who still hasn’t thrown an interception, a group that includes Western Michigan gunslinger Zach Terrell and North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley.
Only 2 QBs in last decade to complete 75% of throws with 13+ TDs and no picks in 1st 5 games: Geno Smith (2012) and Mitch Trubisky (2016).— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) October 2, 2016
While all three are likely to toss a pick at some point this season, it's worth noting an important trend for the Tar Heels. (Hey, here's hoping both Finley and Trubisky are tossing the pigskin this well when the Tar Heels and Wolfpack meet in their final game of the regular season in November.)
In a day and age where big plays and pushing the ball downfield are the norm in college football, North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora has managed to reconcile that goal with better protection of the football.
And doing it with a starting quarterback who is still relatively new to the role is just icing on the cake.
Things started nicely on Saturday for the Tar Heels as they rolled out to 21-0 lead on the road at Doak S. Campbell Stadium. UNC was off and running with three drives covering 70-plus yards and two scores accounted for by Trubisky (a 22-yard pass from Trubisky to wideout T.J. Logan, as well as a four-yard TD scamper by Trubisky).
This touchdown run is a great example of the poise that Trubisky is operating with in the pocket right now. It's something you wish you could bottle up and save for special occassions, just like those six-packs of the original Coca-Cola recipe that your parents have stashed away somewhere.
Facing a tough Seminoles defense in a third-and-goal to go scenario, No. 10 in white knows quick decision-making in the red zone is paramount. That normally means following your progressions and making the right read, but good footwork in a pinch can always help too.
Trubisky is not nearly as fleet of foot as former Tar Heels quarterback Marquise Williams (158 carries and 948 yards in 2015), but this foray to the endzone might be an indication of what he learned as the backup a year ago.
Despite the initial push from the defensive line, Trubisky makes deft use of a pump fake to draw the defenders off their lines. A fake to the man in the left flat gets the flow of the defense moving in that direction out of respect for Trubisky's timing and accuracy in delivering the football.
As the pocket closes around him, UNC's quarterback steps up toward the line of scrimmage and rolls out to his right where a one-on-one with defensive back Nate Andrews (29) ensues.
With one man left before the endzone, Trubisky pulls out yet another pump fake to create the hesitation he needs to get around the defense. The key to this play — given Trubisky's deficit in the athleticism department (sorry Mitch, no offense) —is his decision to keep his eyes downfield. Florida State's defense must continue to honor the pass here, and ultimately the Seminoles are just a victim of a quarterback with a solid football IQ.
The topper here is Trubisky's presence of mind after he takes off on the run. As he dives for the goal line, the junior quarterback still has the presence of mind to use his off hand to keep from making contact with the ground before breaking the plane of the endzone with the football.
However, Florida State and redshirt freshman QB Deondre Francois had no plans of giving this one away easily. And there would be plenty of offense on this day.
The Seminoles rallied to cut the deficit to one score on two occassions in the second half, and would ultimately take the lead after what seemed to be the game-winning touchdown run by Francois with less than half a minute remaining in the fourth quarter.
Florida State lead 35-34 with 23 seconds left. Game over, right? Or perhaps, just game on.
North Carolina is no stranger to high-scoring affairs (26th in the nation with 40.4 points per game), but this game required an added bit of composure from the first-year starter. Going on the road in the ACC is never easy, but Trubisky and company had a chance to get back on the right side of the scoreboard with a mere 23 seconds left on the clock.
Last week, Trubisky completed three fourth-down conversions against Pittsburgh to help keep the game-winning drive alive in a 37-36 win, so there was little reason to doubt the possibility of the potential for another late-game comeback.
This time around would require some more heavy lifting.
Trubisky and the Tar Heels started with the ball at their own 25-yard line. The drive kicked off with a 23-yard strike from Trubisky to wideout Mack Hollins for a first down. An incompletion on the next play brought it to 2nd and 10 with nine seconds to play in the ballgame. Trubisky then tried to hook up with Hollins again, but to no avail. However, a pass interference penalty on the Seminoles would move the Tar Heels 15 yards downfield and serve as the prelude to the play of the game.
Senior place-kicker Nick Weiler stepped on with four seconds left well aware of the outcome hanging in the balance. He had already missed a 51-yard field goal and an extra-point try on the day, but Weiler only needed to make one field goal on the day. Suffice it to say, this kick proved tried-and-true.
It's hard to overshadow a teammate that kicks a 54-yard game-winning field goal to knock off a ranked conference foe on the road, so odds are Trubisky will share the limelight for this week, but the opportunity for the decisive kick would not have happened if not for Trubisky's heroics in leading the offense.
Trubisky finished the day completing 31-of-38 passes for 405 yards and three touchdowns — his third consecutive performance with 400-plus yards and at least three touchdowns. If UNC and its signal-caller continue to play at a high level, there's reason to expect that the Tar Heels could win out and set the pace in the ACC Coastal division.
A look ahead sees UNC hosting No. 25 Virginia Tech this weekend and traveling to face No. 14 Miami (Fla.) on Oct. 15. Both games will be an important barometer for Trubisky to test his mettle against solid defensive units. Perhaps more important will be the impact on UNC's collective bowl and/or College Football Playoff hopes.
A year ago North Carolina was potentially knocking on the door of the Playoff, if not for an onside kick gone awry against Clemson in the ACC Championship game. If Trubisky continues to spin it the way he's been doing so far in 2016, there's no telling where this Tar Heels team could end up.