CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Larry Fedora’s HUNH offensive system has set more than 100 records since he took over the North Carolina program prior to the 2012 season. His first four offenses at UNC rank in the top-10 all-time in school history, and his 2015 unit led the nation in yards per play (7.28).
It’s an elite schematic design, although it’s not without its flaws. On Saturday night, against one of the SEC’s top defensive minds in Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, UNC managed just 315 total yards of offense on 5.3 yards per play, the lowest such marks since the home loss to N.C. State on Nov. 29, 2014. The Tar Heel offense scored just two touchdowns, its fewest in seven games.
“I would have liked a heck of a lot more production in everything we did and a lot more consistency,” Fedora said on Monday. "If we would have been more consistent, we would have done a few different things. But because of our lack of consistency, we tended to go to the pass more and we didn’t hit on any of the plays that we thought we were going to hit on.”
Junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky, making his first career start, completed 24-of-40 passes for 156 yards. Those 40 attempts more than double UNC’s rushing attempts (19), despite Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan combining to average 9.5 yards per carry.
Trubisky told reporters that differential is skewed due to late-game passing necessity, and that’s true. UNC had an 18-26 run-pass split when the Bulldogs took the lead for good at 26-24 with 5:27 to play.
Even so, that’s a curious balance given that UNC’s 8.4 rushing yards per attempt is the second-highest mark in Fedora’s 106 games as a head coach. That stat doesn’t seem to mesh well with this Fedora comment from his weekly press conference: “If we were running the ball effectively, then we probably would have run the ball quite a bit more, actually.”
That, however, provides insight into his schematic design. Georgia entered the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game intent on limiting UNC’s options in the run game, which was fine for Fedora, whose system is built upon taking what the defense gives. Try to stop the run, and UNC will throw the ball. Try to clog up the passing windows and the Tar Heels will tuck the ball and run.
UNC passed 14 times on first down compared to 11 rushing attempts, although the most critical component of the game centered on four deep balls thrown on first down that failed to hit. Georgia defensive back Maurice Smith made a great play to break up a would-be touchdown from Trubisky to Ryan Switzer, and then Austin Proehl dropped a big gainer down the left sideline. Similar passes to Bug Howard and Mack Hollins were overthrown.
“I don’t know how it happened because we were hitting the deep balls all week in practice,” Trubisky said. “… I just missed. That’s on me. I’ve been making those throws in the summer and all of the way through camp, and it just didn’t happen Saturday. It’s frustrating.”
Fedora referred to those big-play opportunities as missed layups, which put his offense in 2nd-and-10s with each incompletion.
“When you start getting behind the chains every time and you’re in long-yardage situations, it’s tough to just sit in there and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to run the football,’” Fedora said. “I’ve never done that and I probably never will. It’s just not my philosophy. I’ve never gone into a game saying, ‘We’re just going to run the football no matter what they do.’ This offense has always been dictated on taking advantage of what the defense gives you.”
That approach was evident late in the first half with UNC facing a 1st-and-goal from the 5-yard-line and Trubisky electing to throw the ball each time. Fedora’s scheme is loaded with run-pass options, which allows the quarterback to count the box. If the box is stacked, the offensive design instructs him to take the numbers and throw the ball.
Georgia was in a Cover Zero (no safety help) set, thereby creating 1-on-1 matchups on the perimeter. UNC failed to advance the ball and settled for a field goal.
“If it’s called to throw the ball three times, then I need to make that play for my team and I just didn’t get it done,” Trubisky said.
UNC’s loss to Georgia drew parallels to the South Carolina loss last season in a variety of ways, none more baffling than the low usage for Hood. The All-ACC running back carried the ball 13 times against the Gamecocks, and only 10 times against the Bulldogs.
Fedora bristled when asked about Hood’s touches in both season openers.
“It’s the same situation as always,” the fifth-year UNC head coach said. “If we run the ball good enough, then we didn’t throw it enough. And if we don’t throw it well, then we didn’t run it enough. It’s always the same thing. We go in with a game plan to take advantage of what they give us, and unfortunately, in that game, we didn’t know what they were going to do in a lot of the situations and we had to adjust.”
Fedora also dismissed the notion that UNC’s new offensive play-calling-by-committee approach was problematic, saying there were no problems with the setup.
“It’s the same it’s been for five years now,” he said. “It’s not any different, just different people, but the system and the way we do it is the same.”
The Tar Heels will look to get back on track offensively against Lovie Smith’s Illinois squad on Saturday night in Champaign.