CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 17 North Carolina executed 15 explosive plays, the football equivalent of landing punishing haymakers, in Saturday’s 66-31 rout of Duke.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora has broken offensive records at every stop he’s been since taking his first offensive coordinator job at Middle Tennessee in 1999. What his offense did against the Blue Devils was something he’s never seen before.
“We had 15 explosive plays,” Fedora said on Monday. “I don’t remember being on one where we had that many, actually. I’ve been on some explosive offenses, yes, that could make plays. Some good ones, but I don’t remember a day like that.”
The Tar Heels rolled up 704 yards – third-most in school single-game history - on 80 plays, good for an 8.8 yards-per-play clip. That’s the sixth time in nine games this season that UNC has averaged 7.25 or more yards per play.
The yards-per-play metric is a preferred method in determining an offense’s explosiveness as it adjusts for tempo. The more explosive plays an offense creates, the larger that per-play stat grows.
The Tar Heels illustrated in 2014 how total offense statistics can be misleading. UNC ranked 45th nationally in churning out 429.8 yards per game last fall, but needed an ACC-high 1,005 plays – 77.3 per game – to generate that amount of yardage. UNC’s 5.56 yards-per-play average ranked 66th nationally.
Through nine games in 2015, the Tar Heels rank 17th nationally in total offense (495.9) despite averaging 64.9 plays per game, good for 11th in the ACC. UNC’s current 7.64 yards-per-play average ranks second nationally behind Baylor’s ridiculous 8.36 yards-per-play mark.
For context purposes, if UNC maintains its 7.64 yards-per-play average for the remainder of the season, it would stand as the third-highest yards-per-play mark nationally over the past eight years, trailing only Baylor and Florida State in 2013 (7.67).
Football Study Hall’s Bill Connelly provided insight into the value of the yards-per-play metric in 2014 in determining that a team averaging 0.5 yards more than its opponent won more than 70 percent of the time in 2013. Increase that margin to 2.0 yards and the winning percentage jumped to 95.0.
UNC is currently averaging 2.52 more yards per play than its opponents.
Fedora defines explosive plays as passes of 15 yards or more and runs of 12 yards or more. UNC already has 40 passing plays of 20 yards or more and 35 run plays of 15 yards or more.
One key component for UNC’s success this season is the quality and quantity of experienced players both at the skill positions and along the offensive line. Eight different Tar Heels have caught touchdown passes in 2015, and four more have rushed for touchdowns.
Seven Tar Heels scored against Duke on Saturday, including wide receivers Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Quinshad Davis.
“Who’s the defense going to cover if all four of us score?” Hollins said after the game. “If all four of us are getting open, you can’t double cover one person if the other person is getting open. Being able to do that almost makes the defense useless.”
The Tar Heels aim to connect on at least 10 explosive plays per game. Not only do they affect the scoreboard, but they also affect the mental psyche of the opponent.
“It’s devastating for a player, especially if you’re the one that it happens to a couple of times,” Fedora said. “If you’re that corner that gets beat, you can forget that first one, but if that second one gets you, yeah, you’ve got to be pretty dang strong. And as a defense, your leadership has to be really good. [If] you’re giving up 10 explosive plays, then you’re not feeling real good about yourself.”
That’s a sentiment UNC’s last eight opponents – all Tar Heel victories – likely share.