The Path to Clarity

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – With two-thirds of the 2009 slate in the history books, North Carolina enters the final month of the season with an ever-increasing clarity as to the program that it is trying to become under Butch Davis' direction.

Butch Ball

If you take a stroll through the college football landscape, you will notice that the elite programs are stamped with a certain identity formed by their head coaches. Florida State has historically been known for its aggressive defenses and overabundance of penalties under Bobby Bowden, while Pete Carroll's laid-back Hollywood style has turned Southern California into a mini-NFL program. Closer to home, there's Virginia Tech's "Beamer Ball" approach, which focuses on special teams and defensive plays to pressure its opponents.

We've heard about what Butch Davis wants to do ever since he arrived in Chapel Hill, and while there have been glimpses over the past two-and-a-half seasons, only recently has his preferred method begun to seep through and color the program.

Some may not like his conservative approach that pairs a dominant defense and a sound running game, but the professional ranks has proven time and time again that the formula is legitimate. Davis is going to play it safe to minimize mistakes offensively and utilize his defense to create problems that ultimately help his team win the all-important turnover battle.

In the loss to Florida State, North Carolina faced a 4th-and-5 on the Seminoles 44-yard-line trailing 30-27 with less than five minutes to play. Instead of taking a chance, Davis elected to punt. The thought being that with three timeouts in his back pocket, the Tar Heel defense could force a three-and-out and UNC's offense would be back on the field with plenty of time on the clock.

But Christian Ponder managed two first downs in eight plays while eating up all three timeouts and 3:23 off the clock, essentially ending the ball game.

Similar conservative decisions were made against Virginia Tech, but those moves paved the way to a stunning victory. With 33 seconds remaining before halftime, North Carolina stood at its 35-yard-line with two timeouts available. But needing 40 yards to reach Casey Barth's field goal range, the Tar Heels took a knee and ran to the locker room without testing a Virginia Tech defense that had just surrendered a 13-play, 84-yard touchdown drive. Carrying momentum into halftime was the apparent theme, as a last-second turnover could charge the Hokies at intermission.

Late in the fourth quarter, North Carolina faced a 3rd-and-goal at the two-yard-line trailing 17-14. Despite short-yardage back Ryan Houston averaging 3.7 yards per clip and having been stopped for a loss only one time this season, it appeared as though Davis never considered UNC's field position to be two-down territory, opting to throw a fade route instead.

Two Houston runs could have possibly given North Carolina a four-point lead and likely would have prevented overtime in a hostile environment, but Davis trusted his defense to make a play and that's exactly what they did three downs later.

Davis' conservative approach may backfire at times and irk the Tar Heel fan base, but as the talent level continues to rise in Chapel Hill, so will the percentages of those traditionalist decisions working out in UNC's favor.

Winning in the Trenches

North Carolina's defensive line has emerged as one of the nation's best in '09, serving as the anchor to the Tar Heels' seventh-ranked defense (265.0 yards per game). Davis has harped on the importance of controlling both sides of the line of scrimmage since taking the job back in '06, but the offensive line has struggled mightily to reach the lofty heights of its counterparts.

That is, until recently. With inexperience and youth pelting the lineup early in the season with left guard Jon Cooper and center Lowell Dyer out of the lineup, North Carolina's ground game totaled 239 yards on 116 carries, good for a 2.1-yards-per-carry mark against its first four FBS opponents.

But as that youth and inexperience has grown up, as well as Cooper and Dyer's staggered return, UNC has tallied 419 rushing yards on 83 carries in its past two games, good for a 5.0 yards-per-carry mark.

"Our offensive line is finally back together as a whole like they were earlier in the season in training camp before we had some injuries," quarterback T.J. Yates said. "…We're starting to get everybody back and starting to gel as an offense a little bit."

Just as important as the line's health is offensive coordinator John Shoop's ability to manufacture rushing yards with players not named Shaun Draughn or Ryan Houston. Wide receivers Greg Little (15 rushes for 92 yards, TD) and Jhay Boyd (10 rushes for 91 yards) have provided quick hits from orthodox positions on the field.

"We've done creative [things] to get the balls into wide receivers' hands, as well as them coming back," Yates said. "Having Cooper back is awesome. He's great pulling around the end on the power [run] and he's a very smart guy, just as Lowell is, so they can communicate with the other guys and get stuff figured out in the middle of a game. Just the combination of us being creative with the ball and having those guys back healthy has really helped the running game."

If you're searching for clear evidence behind the significance of a strong rushing attack, look no further than North Carolina's 11:15 time of possession in the fourth quarter against Virginia Tech. UNC rushed 14 times and added two flare passes to soak up the clock in that final stanza.

Four Weeks of Cloudy Forecasts

While obvious, it's still important to note that Butch Davis hasn't completely turned this program into what he wants it to eventually become. Proponents hope that day occurs sooner than later, while skeptics question whether or not it will ever happen. Regardless, it's possible that the recent positive developments could swing back the other way another time or two before Davis has a firm grasp of the wheel.

With home games remaining against a prolific quarterback (Duke's Thad Lewis) and a program boasting explosive athleticism (Miami), as well as road trips to the bitter cold (Boston College) and an archrival's house (N.C. State), even the Tar Heels are wondering what North Carolina team will show up down the stretch.

"Well, I would hope that the real North Carolina is the team that we're playing like now," free safety Deunta Williams said. "For two weeks, we've played pretty decent in all three phases, so I think that we're starting to gel as a team. It's the best time to do it… When you hit the bowl game season, hopefully you're peaking and playing your best ball of the year."

North Carolina must win two of its final four games to be eligible for postseason consideration.

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