Inside Carolina/Jim Hawkins

UNC Seeking Explosive Plays vs. Stanford

The Cardinal is allowing just four explosive plays per game.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s explosive offense will have to solve Stanford’s defensive approach of stopping the run and limiting big plays in the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Friday.

The Cardinal ranks 36th nationally in total defense (365.6 ypg) and 42nd in yards per play allowed (5.36). Head coach David Shaw’s defense is sound against both the run and the pass, holding opponents to 4.2 yards per carry (42nd) and 6.6 yards per attempt (24th).

“They’re really sound in everything they do,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “They’re multiple in their fronts. They’ve got guys that understand their system. They haven’t given up many deep balls and they’ve played the run very well all year, so they do a heck of a job.”

Shaw pairs a versatile front – based out of a 3-4 look – with a bend-but-don’t-break approach on the back end.

“When you first glance at it, you’re thinking 3-4 but as you watch them, they’re really closer to almost a 50/50 four down and 3-4, using a lot of the same personnel,” offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic said. “It’s really a thing where you are kind of preparing for two different defenses, as far as the fronts. And they do a nice job of that.”

That versatility up front is boosted by talented defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, who can play end in the 3-4 and tackle in the 4-3. Thomas won the Pac-12’s Morris Trophy earlier this month, which is awarded to the conference’s top lineman. The 6-foot-3, 273-pounder has 55 tackles on the season with 13 tackles for loss and seven sacks.

UNC’s offensive approach is designed around taking what the defense gives and utilizing spacing to turn short plays (run or pass) into long gains. Decision-making and accuracy at the quarterback position are key components in making Fedora’s offense roll along, and junior Mitch Trubisky has excelled in both areas, as evidenced by his 68.9 completion percentage (fifth nationally) and 7:1 touchdown-interception ratio (28 TD, 4 INT).

Five Tar Heels have caught 25 or more passes in 2016, although Mack Hollins, the wide receiver with the best ability to blow the top off Stanford’s defense, is not practicing and will not play after suffering a season-ending injury against Miami. UNC will also be without top running back Elijah Hood (858 rushing yards, 8 TD) due to medical reasons.

“They really try to smother the run game to be able to have seven or eight around the box,” Kapilovic said. “They try to keep everything in front of them and make you earn it by going down the field and trying to score. Don’t give up the big plays and smother the run game, and they do a good job of that. They’re unique where they bring some pressure from depth, so it may not be necessarily to get home to the quarterback, but it’s to give you an illusion of having a five-man box when it’s a seven-man box.”

Stanford complements its versatile front look with press man coverage on the perimeter in a Cover-1 scheme. The Cardinal ranks 12th nationally in success rate, which is a metric developed by FootballOutsiders.com to determine a defense’s ability to force its opponent to play behind the chains. Shaw’s defense also ranks 14th nationally in touchdown rate, which is the percentage of opponent offensive drives that result in a touchdown, according to BCFToys.com‘s Brian Fremeau.

“They’re only allowing four explosive plays a game,” wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer said. “That’s pretty low. We try to get 10 and they only give up four, so something’s got to give.”

Duke and N.C. State limited UNC’s ability to create explosive plays. That will need to change in El Paso if the Tar Heels hope to win their first bowl game since 2013.

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