Buck: Foreshadowing Fedora

SHREVEPORT, La. --- Golf legend Bobby Jones once said of a young Jack Nicklaus, "He is playing a game with which I am not familiar." The North Carolina defense could have said the same thing about the Missouri offense at Monday's Independence Bowl. That, however, will change under new UNC head coach Larry Fedora.

Utilizing their run-first spread offense, the Tigers ripped the Tar Heels for 192 yards rushing in the first half alone, and made it look easy. The Heels had previously given up an average of only 106.17 rushing yards per game during the 2011 season, but were torched by Missouri's offense. Franklin also threw the ball 23 times, completing 15 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown -- but Missouri did its damage on the ground, finishing with 337 yards rushing. Franklin had 142 yards on 18 carries, plus two touchdowns before the night was done.

Missouri's style of running the ball may be unconventional, but it is extremely effective. The Tigers led the Big 12 in rushing this season, averaging 236.1 yards per game, but were missing All-Big 12 rusher Henry Josey in the bowl game. No problem for the Tigers.

Typically when you think of teams which amass that type of rushing yardage, you think of the I-Formation, with a big bruising fullback and a powerful offensive line opening holes for a tailback that runs over defenders as well as around them -- "smash-mouth football." In the Tigers' spread, they frequently gained huge chunks of yardage from either a naked backfield with five stand-up receivers, or at most, one-back sets.

By spreading the field horizontally, Missouri quarterback James Franklin and tailback Kendi Lawrence often had wide lanes to run through, then five, six, or seven yards of green grass ahead of them before they had to face their first Tar Heel defender. The Missouri spread made it difficult or impossible for Tar Heel defenders to provide help once the Tigers' had a runner in the open field. The Tigers didn't attempt their first punt until mid-way into the third quarter.

"I thought they did a great job with their four- and five-wide receiver sets getting our linebackers removed," interim head coach Everett Withers said. "I think those guys did a great job of removing linebackers from the core, when you've only got four against five up front sometimes it's hard to stop them. They removed us from the box a lot with four-and-five receiver sets."

As unusual as Missouri's method may look to UNC fans, it contains many of the same principles they will likely be seeing as early as the 2012 spring game. Spreading the field horizontally is the key to those principles, whether a team throws or runs from the spread.

In 2007, while the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, Fedora directed an offense that rushed the ball 592 times, as opposed to 386 passing attempts. That Oklahoma State offense had a couple of receivers you may have heard of, including current Dallas Cowboy Dez Bryant and a transfer from North Carolina, Adarius Bowman, who led the Cowboys in receiving with 67 catches for 1006 yards. A run-first spread offense, like North Carolina saw from Missouri on Monday night, is Larry Fedora's preferred modus operandi.

This type of offense attempts to create difficulties for defenses not just through formations, but through tempo. Missouri doesn't huddle. They come to the line of scrimmage after each down, often with new substitutions, as soon as the previous play ends. The quarterback often looks over the defense with 30 seconds of the 40-second play clock remaining, and will sometimes snap the ball with 20 second or more remaining on the clock.

It's an aggressive, relentless style of offense. In the fourth quarter, with a 21-point lead, the Tigers were still snapping the ball with more time on the play clock than the Tar Heels, who conversely needed to preserve the clock as much as possible. That type of tempo wears on a defense.

Over the course of their 2011 season, the Tar Heels ran 752 plays. The Missouri Tigers ran 900.

Withers down-played the impact of the no-huddle offense.

"We've practiced against that for the last 2 ½ years," Withers said, adding that the referees allow the defense to substitute.

However, the Tar Heels ran 62 plays, the Tigers ran 72. Those numbers may not seem like a big deal, but the tempo that Missouri ran created a sense of uncertainty at times for the Tar Heels.

Many of these same concepts, horizontally spreading the field, increasing the tempo of play, all of these are part and parcel of new Fedora's playbook. There will be some differences -- Fedora doesn't go with an empty backfield set nearly as much as Missouri has this year -- but the principles are the same.

What counts are wins and losses, however, and even though the approach to the game will change under the new regime, what UNC fans hope for is improved results in the win/loss column. If Fedora's offense can produce results like the Tigers did on Monday in Shreveport, the win/loss column may take care of itself.

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