CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Larry Fedora said he didn’t know what the statistics were. Cornerback M.J. Stewart said the same thing.
Head coach and player alike seemed a bit hesitant to provide an assessment of North Carolina’s run defense in the aftermath of the Tar Heels’ 41-7 victory over The Citadel on Saturday without seeing the stat sheet first.
Fedora eventually settled on a positive review - “Overall, I thought our guys played well,” he said - and Stewart deemed the performance “pretty good.”
Well, the numbers were as follows: 344 yards on 72 attempts for an average of 4.8 yards per carry.
It wasn’t a poor performance against the Bulldogs, who entered the game averaging an NCAA Division I-leading 359.9 rushing yards per game. But it was hardly a definitive statement of improvement heading into UNC’s critical season finale against N.C. State on Friday.
The Tar Heels have been struggling to stop the run late in the season, just as they did a year ago. After getting thumped 34-3 by Virginia Tech, UNC bounced back to hold Miami and Virginia to an average of 124.5 rushing yards on 3.32 yards per carry.
In the last three games, though, the numbers have been worse. Georgia Tech, Duke, and The Citadel have averaged 315 rushing yards on 5.08 yards per carry.
Georgia Tech and The Citadel are two of the most run-dominant teams in the country, so an increase in rushing yardage allowed is to be expected. But the ability of opponents to run effectively even when the Tar Heels know they are going to run continues to be a problem.
The Citadel ran the ball 11 consecutive plays on its opening drive and picked up four first downs before a false-start penalty stalled the drive and led to a missed field goal.
“The first series, they ran the fullback, I think, every play, and our guys eventually held them,” Fedora said. “We made some adjustments from that point on, and I thought from that point on we played really well until we started playing everybody else. Then we started giving up some plays.”
UNC allowed no points until Grant Drakeford had a 28-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter with some backup defensive players on the field. One reserve who stood out for the Tar Heels was middle linebacker Ayden Bonilla, who made nine tackles and forced a fumble in relief of injured starter Andre Smith. Smith left the game in the third quarter after a fierce collision near the sideline and did not return.
The Tar Heels made some good plays against the run, forcing three and outs on back-to-back possessions to enable their offense to grab a 14-0 lead after one quarter. They also recovered three fumbles and avoided major assignment busts. If they hadn’t needed to be on the field for 42:25 of the game’s 60 minutes, maybe The Citadel’s fourth-quarter touchdown drive never would have occurred.
“I thought we played pretty stout,” said defensive tackle Aaron Crawford, who had a career-high 10 tackles and his first sack. “We came out with a mission, and we executed it in almost every facet of the game. They got a couple of big plays, and that happens. But I’m very happy with the way we played overall.”
The challenge and stakes grow next week.
N.C. State has a versatile rushing attack that is a threat between the tackles and on the perimeter. Tailback Matt Dayes has ended the nation’s longest drought of 1,000-yard rushers, becoming the first Wolfpack player to eclipse the mark since T.A. McLendon in 2002. Jaylen Samuels is tough to tackle on jet sweeps, and Nyheim Hines has track-star speed.
There’s also a potential wrinkle. The Wolfpack have not gotten consistent play from pass-first quarterback Ryan Finley, perhaps opening the door for run-first quarterback Jalan McClendon to see more snaps against the Tar Heels. McClendon stands 6-5, 212 pounds and played a key role in N.C. State’s victory over Notre Dame this season. Plus, Dayes has been taking direct shotgun snaps in recent weeks.
It’s prudent to remember that N.C. State quarterback Jacoby Brissett ran for 128 yards and two touchdowns against the Tar Heels last season and that he rushed for 167 yards and one score against UNC the year before that. UNC also has struggled to defend quarterback runs in the last three games. Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas and Matthew Jordan combined for 136 yards on 26 carries, Duke’s Daniel Jones delivered 94 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, and The Citadel’s Dominique Allen ran for 43 yards on seven attempts.
Going back to late last season, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson ran for 131 yards and two scores against the Tar Heels in the ACC Championship game, and several Baylor players took turns running from behind center as the Bears racked up 645 rushing yards against UNC in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The blueprint for success on the ground against UNC is there, and N.C. State has the personnel to execute it. If the Tar Heels want to keep alive their chance to win the Coastal Division, they need to find a way to counteract it.
“It’s a short week,” Crawford said. “We’ve got a good plan in to do it. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday we’re grinding - mentally and physically. We’re just trying to show people that we can stop the run and get the ball back to our offense.”