CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina ranks 14th in the ACC and 114th nationally in rushing defense four weeks into the regular season. Up next is Coastal Division foe Georgia Tech and Paul Johnson’s multifaceted rushing attack.
On Saturday, Delaware rushed for 279 yards and two touchdowns on 49 carries against the Tar Heels, churning out yardage at a 5.7 yards-per-carry clip. The Blue Hens had that level of success even without the services of starting running back Jalen Randolph, who missed the game due to injury.
The 279 yards are the most by Delaware since rushing for 314 yards against Rhode Island in October 2013.
Delaware is UNC’s third opponent this season that has rushed for more than 225 yards. South Carolina ran for 254 yards in the season opener and Illinois totaled 227 rushing yards last week. The Tar Heels are allowing 228.8 rushing yards per game a third of the way through 2015 after giving up 240.5 rushing yards per game in 2014.
UNC also ranks 13th in the ACC and 104th nationally in rushing yards per play (5.03).
Those statistics are no doubt troubling for defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who has prioritized stopping the run at each of his coaching stops. The theme thus far has been the defensive line’s inability to consistently win at the point of attack.
“We’re still getting too much push upfront,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said following his team’s 41-14 win. “We’ve got to do a better job in the front with those front four guys.”
The primary issues were missed tackles and the linemen not fitting their gaps properly, according to defensive end Dajaun Drennon. Some schematic adjustments by the Blue Hens also played a role.
“We haven’t really seen the wildcat, and they ran that a couple of times, got a couple of first downs,” defensive tackle Nazair Jones said. “Besides that, everything else we saw coming. It was just poor execution.”
Run defense is not solely the responsibility of the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s scheme relies heavily on the linebackers to fill specific gaps to aid the front four.
“They were a true gap scheme team,” outside linebacker Shakeel Rashad said. “They’re going to move their gaps. They did a lot of pulling. They moved their gaps all over the place, so if you didn’t have your eyes right where they needed to be, you’re not going to know where your gap moved to, and that messed with us a few times.”
Delaware needed just two snaps to exploit one of those gaps as Thomas Jefferson gashed UNC’s defense for a 72-yard touchdown run to give the Blue Hens a 7-0 lead. Rashad told reporters that the defense missed several fits on that particular play, including his own.
Georgia Tech leads the ACC in rushing offense (326.0 ypg), although there’s very little carryover from UNC’s scheme to stop the run in its first four games to what lies ahead in Atlanta.
“There’s really not any comparisons as far as what this team did and what Georgia Tech does,” Fedora said. “Georgia Tech, you have to understand your option responsibilities, you have to defeat blocks and you have to make tackles. So if you want to make that comparison, you’ve got to defeat blocks and make tackles. Those two things compare on any run.”
Gap integrity is critical against the Yellow Jackets, according to Rashad.
“If you’re not where you’re supposed to be, they find a way to get the ball to that spot,” the senior linebacker said.