UNC’s defense has struggled mightily to stop the run throughout the entire 2014 season. The Tar Heels rank 14th in the ACC and 113th nationally in run defense, allowing 228.2 yards per game (30 yards more than the next closest ACC team).
The past month has been particularly unkind to the Tar Heels. UNC has faced three of the top four rushing offenses in the ACC and has failed to contain them. Whether it was Georgia Tech’s triple option (376 yards), Miami’s pro-style scheme behind Duke Johnson (178 yards for Johnson, 295 total) or Pitt’s power approach behind back James Conner (221 yards for Conner, 305 total), UNC has been run through and around in a variety of ways.
Things won’t get much easier for the Tar Heels against a Blue Devils’ offense that has leaned on its ground game to complement quarterback Anthony Boone.
Last season, Duke racked up 187 yards against UNC en route to a late 27-25 victory in Chapel Hill. This season, Duke’s ground attack might be even more versatile.
“I like to think Pitt was a good test for us; we got the win, but we didn’t play as well in the rushing game,” linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said following Wednesday’s practice. “They’re talented and we have a big test ahead for us.”
Unlike UNC’s more recent opponents, the Blue Devils have employed a highly effective running back by committee approach. Three backs have rushed for 350 yards or more, and are averaging at least 4.8 yards per carry.
Freshman Shaun Wilson leads the team with 553 rushing yards on 64 carries (8.64 ypc, 4 TD), while Shaquille Powell leads the team in carries (410 yards, 2 TD on 85 rushes). Josh Snead has added 369 yards and three touchdowns on 71 carries.
Boone has also been effective running the ball, totaling 281 yards and four touchdowns on 63 attempts.
“Their running backs are really coming on,” associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said. “… They make you have to pack the box to stop the run, then that puts you in bad situations outside.”
Adding to the challenge is a short week of prep for the program.
“We’ve had to try and do some things with the short week,” Koenning said. “We were here Saturday night working to who knows what time, and all day Sunday into the night until who knows when.”
UNC was limited in its ability to make wholesale changes in its defensive approach against Pittsburgh due to youth and inexperience. The staff elected to stick with its 4-2-5 base in order to best put their personnel in a position to succeed.
“Duke does so many different formations and looks and shifts and motions,” Koenning said. “It’s really tough for a team that doesn’t have a whole bunch of experience.”
One silver lining for the Tar Heels is that Duke’s ground game hasn’t been as potent late in the year. The Blue Devils are averaging 137.0 yards per game on a 4.1 yards-per-carry clip in November.
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