Breaking Down 3rd-and-1

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s decision to throw a screen pass on 3rd-and-1 from the 5-yard line in the final minutes of Saturday’s win over San Diego State has drawn significant scrutiny this week. Understanding the play call and the miscue is a critical piece of the discussion. asked Larry Fedora to explain the play following practice on Wednesday afternoon. The third-year UNC head coach, however, is not one to share details about his offensive scheme.

“It’s the way we run our offense,” Fedora said. “It’s my fault to put him in that position. I shouldn’t have put him in that position, so I’ll take the blame for it.”

Junior quarterback Marquise Williams, who completed the screen pass to Bug Howard for a 1-yard loss, provided insight into the play.

“It was a basic box count where you’ve got the defensive line and the linebackers and you have a 3x1 outside,” Williams said.

In the above photo, UNC has three wide receivers split out to the left side of the formation and tight end Jack Tabb is attached to the right tackle on the ride side, thus the 3x1 lingo. A screen pass to Howard (far left of the formation) is packaged with an inside zone run play to running back Elijah Hood. The five offensive linemen, Tabb and Hood are all running the inside zone regardless of what decision Williams makes in reading the coverage.

The proximity of the goal line, thereby reducing the vertical length of the field, eliminates the need for deep safeties, which are not counted in typical box-count plays. With all 11 Aztec defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage, Williams said he was looking for two things: (1) a numbers advantage on the perimeter or (2) a called blitz to counter the run.

Fedora explained the numbers advantage aspect during a 2012 football clinic: “If the safety rolls down into coverage, there are 3-on-3 to the outside, and that is no advantage.”

In the above photo, note how the safety is rolling down to cover Quinshad Davis in the slot.

In the following photo, there are two key aspects to point out. The first, and most important, is that San Diego State has employed press-man coverage on Howard. The second is that the Aztecs’ second line of defense has provided adequate depth for the inside zone to pick up a short gain.

According to Williams, the press coverage was enough to kill the screen option and keep the ball on the ground.

“That was on me because we had three receivers and there were two defensive backs, but they were pressed,” Williams said. “Usually when they’re pressed, we should run it in.”

The next photo highlights both the press coverage on the perimeter and the sizable hole created on the right side of the formation due to quality blocking by Tabb and right tackle Jon Heck.

UNC settled for a field goal to increase its lead to 31-27 with 4:00 to play and then needed a Tim Scott interception in the end zone to preserve the victory with 14 seconds remaining.

“At the time, I was just being a little greedy,” Williams said. “I should have let Elijah run it on in for a second touchdown, but hey, we got the victory, so that’s all that matters.”

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