Offensive Balancing Act

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora has stressed offensive balance ever since he arrived in Chapel Hill, although that concept may play out differently, as it did on Saturday, than many might think.

A quick look at the stat sheet might bring about the opinion that UNC was decidedly one-sided against East Carolina. The Tar Heels gained 321 yards through the air against 129 rushing yards. The play breakdown brought that difference a little closer together with 43 passes against 29 rushes.

Those statistics, however, don't paint an accurate picture of how the game transpired. With Gio Bernard back in the lineup, the Pirates placed an emphasis on limiting UNC's ground game with extra personnel near the line of scrimmage.

That plan worked, as Bernard netted 50 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries.

"I think you have to give [ECU] credit for some of the things they were doing," Fedora told reporters during his postgame press conference. "They were getting an extra guy down in the box and moving people and bringing a guy quite a bit of the time."

While some football coaches are stubborn and determined to impose their will on their opponents, regardless of how many extra players are stacked in the box, Fedora has been open about allowing the flow of a game to dictate his coaching decisions.

Want to take away the passing game? Fine, UNC will run on you. Take away the run? UNC will aim to carve you up through the air.

And that's exactly what Bryn Renner and his offensive counterparts did on Saturday.

That extra Pirate defender in the box meant one less defender protecting the passing lanes, thereby setting the stage for Renner to complete 27 of his 43 passes for 321 yards and two touchdowns. The red-shirt junior set a school record for most passing yards in consecutive games after throwing for a career-high 363 yards last week against Louisville.

"They were going to get people down in [the box] to try to stop the run and it gave us things in the passing game," Fedora said.

Erik Highsmith (8 catches, 66 yards) was one of eight Tar Heels to catch a pass, joining Bernard (6 catches, 52 yards, TD) and Quinshad Davis (5 catches, 48 yards) as Renner's top targets.

"I think we just do a great job of being balanced," Renner said. "That's our game plan going in – we want to run and pass it. Different games dictate what you've got to do to win. [Offensive coordinator Blake] Anderson did a great job seeing the coverages sitting up in the box. He's got a better view of being able to call plays, so I think he did a great job of calling plays so that we could succeed today."

Eric Ebron (3 catches, 64 yards) told reporters that Anderson took advantage of ECU's focus on the ground game with a healthy dose of quick routes. Highsmith agreed.

"We're still going to run the ball – we've got Gio, [A.J.] Blue and Romar [Morris] – but we just tried to give them play-action, screens behind the blitz and just little things like that," Highsmith said.

If it appeared as though Renner, and the offense as a whole, delivered a more sound performance than it had over the previous two weeks, then there's a good reason.

"I think [the coaches] would agree that this was my best week of practice," Renner said. "I can say that for the whole team. The second half of Louisville – we really understood where we could be as an offense. We took a lot of pride in that this week and continued it over in practice. That made us come out here and play a little bit better."

Fedora's talk of offensive balance can only be measured over the course of a season, not during the course of one game. The value of North Carolina's offensive display against East Carolina will come in the form of future opponents watching this game film and thinking twice about focusing so much on the running game.

That's what a balanced approach provides – not equal statistical numbers, but equal concern in defending both the run and pass.

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