ORLANDO, Fla. – In a game billed as a potential springboard for 2016, No. 10 UNC’s defense reverted back to its 2014 ways in allowing a school-record 645 rushing yards against a depleted Baylor offense in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Gene Chizik knew exactly how Baylor head coach Art Briles would attack his defense, given the Bears’ massive losses in offensive personnel. Quarterbacks Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham, along with Biletnikoff Award winner Corey Coleman and starting tailback Shock Linwood, accounted for 6,644 yards, more than all but seven teams nationally, and 72 touchdowns, more than all but five teams, this season and all four were sidelined due to injury.
Even so, Baylor exploited UNC’s season-long weakness, rushing 84 times at 7.7 yards-per-carry clip. The Tar Heels had allowed 216.8 rushing yards per game through their first 13 games, including 627 rushing yards combined in their last two outings against N.C. State and Clemson.
The Bears sprinted past the previous rushing records allowed by UNC, outdistancing Oklahoma’s 495 yards in 1980 by 150. Their 84 carries also represent a new record set by a UNC opponent and their seven rushing touchdowns tie the record shared by Clemson (’06) and Georgia Tech (‘12).
The Tar Heels prepared for Baylor’s standard offensive approach, albeit with a more pronounced rushing dynamic with third-string quarterback Chris Johnson at the helm, as well as some wildcat elements that the Briles showcased in his team’s regular season-ending loss to Texas.
“They knew they were down quarterbacks and they knew that [Johnson] was very limited as far as the way you could throw the football,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following the 49-38 loss. “And so they put a plan together of wild cat and every form of quarterback style of running game that you could possibly run. And they did a great job with it.”
Baylor averaged 9.2 yards per rush in the first half, churning out 358 yards on 39 carries. That first half rushing total was more than UNC had given up in a game since N.C. State rushed for 388 yards on Nov. 29, 2014.
With five different players – two quarterbacks and three running backs - lining up in the shotgun in Baylor’s wildcat variant, sideline and halftime adjustments were a focal point for the Tar Heels.
“Coming out of halftime, we really simplified things and I thought we were going to be able to settle them down, and we just weren’t able to,” senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “They made a couple of explosive plays and we missed a bunch of tackles. Today they were better than us.”
Baylor consistently gashed UNC up the middle, spreading receivers out wide to force Chizik’s secondary out of the box and then pulling both tackles and guards to create seams inside. LaQuan McGowan, the Bears’ 6-foot-7, 410-pound tight end, was effective as a lead blocker, serving as a sixth offensive lineman up front.
By the end of the third quarter, Baylor had tacked on another 189 rushing yards, breaking not only the UNC school record, but also the record for most rushing yards in bowl history, surpassing Nebraska’s 524 rushing yards against Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
“As we kept adjusting to fix our wounds, they were adjusting again to gash us in other places,” senior linebacker Shakeel Rashad said.
Baylor’s longest run of the night came one play after UNC’s T.J. Logan fumbled short of the goal line into the end zone. The Bears recovered, preventing the Tar Heels from cutting their deficit to four points. Johnny Jefferson capitalized on the next snap, outrunning the UNC defense down the right sideline for an 80-yard touchdown, his third score of the evening.
The 14-point swing increased Baylor’s lead to 42-24 with 2:04 to play in the third quarter.
Jefferson’s 299 rushing yards are the most ever allowed by UNC, topping Virginia Tech’s Mike Imoh previous record of 243 in 2004. Devin Chafin ran for 161 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, while Terence Williams churned out 97 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries.
Baylor’s 756 yards of total offense and 38 first downs are the second-most allowed by the Tar Heels, trailing only ECU (’14).
UNC allowed 247.4 rushing yards per game in 2015, the most since allowing 255.5 per game in 1975.