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What To Watch For: North Carolina

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This week’s #W2W4 takes a look at how both defenses will scheme against the opposing offenses.

California v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

WILL NORTH CAROLINA CONTINUE TO PLAY SUCH A BASIC DEFENSE

I want to stress that I am being 100% honest when I say that North Carolina basically called their defensive plays like I do when I play Madden. UNC was in a nickel (5 DBs) or dime (6 DBs) defense for the vast majority of the game. I counted three plays where they didn’t run some variation of a base man set with a four man rush and two safeties playing deep. They blitzed on those plays and they were beat all three times.

On some plays they ran a zone pass off with their linebackers and nickel and dime backs. On those plays those players passed off crossing routes to the player in the section of the field next to them. That allowed the defenders to keep their eyes in the backfield and anticipate throws. It also helps to stop the run as everyone is not turning to run with receivers. UNC typically played off of the slot receivers which allowed them to start the play with their eyes in the backfield even if they were in man coverage.

Some UNC fans seem to believe that Larry Fedora purposely treats the first game of the season as a “preseason” game of sorts. With the lack of creativity on defense, I can’t help but drink the kool-aid. The defensive scheme never adjusted. They were beaten repeatedly due to the pass rush not getting to the quarterback and the defensive backs not being able to stay with Vic Wharton. They gave up multiple third down conversions towards the end of the game and didn’t do much of anything to help themselves.

Lamar Jackson would run wild if UNC ran this same scheme again. The lack of bodies near the line would allow him to get to the second level with ease and then you have to stop him in space. The calls where the interior defenders were in zone could possibly work with eyes on him at the snap, but you’re still giving him a lot of space to work with. UNC has three strong linebackers and I would expect them to utilize them more this week against a balanced attack like Louisville’s. That leaves some unknown for Bobby Petrino to have to account for. If they run anything outside of the scheme they ran last week. There’s no tape of it to prepare with. Maybe that was their plan all along.

HOW WILL LOUISVILLE HANDLE UNC’S SHORT PASSING GAME

I came into this season worried about Peter Sirmon’s defensive scheme after watching his defense from last season. I was concerned with the amount of cushion the defensive backs played with on outside receivers. Purdue was able to complete a lot of passes on comeback and hitch routes to outside receivers but the cornerbacks did a really good job of closing and making sure that those short passes didn’t go for big gains.

North Carolina kept most of their passes around the sticks and didn’t push the ball deep but a few times. Louisville will have to continue to close on receivers after the catch is made. What I think will be different in this game is the lack of deep threats for UNC. Jeff Brohm is going to push the ball down the field even if he has his punter lined up outside. Larry Fedora kept everything short last week and I don’t know if he feels totally comfortable with his receivers ability to get separation, his quarterback’s accuracy, or his line’s ability to provide time for the play to develop. None of those things will be easier against a much better defense in week two. We could also see some of those short routes get jumped by the Louisville corners because of the lack of deep threats.

LOUISVILLE’S SHORT YARDAGE RUNNING GAME

I will go on the record as not understanding Bobby Petrino’s issue with the play of the running backs last week. I don’t think that Jeremy Smith showed much in his opportunities but he didn’t have very much room to work with. Smith received most of the short yardage runs but he didn’t have great blocking in front the line and some of the plays were a little to “cute” in my opinion. I think that Reggie Bonnafon showed promise when he got the ball. He finished with more yards per carry than Lamar (who didn’t have a negative play) so obviously something was going right.

Louisville has a massive offensive line and we heard all summer long how much that factored into the expected improvement. With that being the case, I was disappointed to see Mechi Becton get tossed aside on a 3rd down run by Lamar. I was also disappointed to see Kenny Thomas get dominated by Gelen Robinson on a 3rd down run by Reggie even though it was in this exact post a week ago as something to watch for. Both of those plays were one-on-one matchups that killed the entire play. Would you like to see the runner break a tackle? Sure. Is that likely when they’ve got a 280-300 pound guy making the tackle? Not really.

Louisville should look to run short yardage plays into the middle of it’s massive offensive line and the timing of the play should be fast. That should negate some of these one-on-one blocking situations where the linemen have to hold their blocks as opposed to being able to cut their man or the play getting to the hole so they don’t have to hold that block so long. I’d take a fullback dive at this point. The other stuff hasn’t worked, so why not try something different?

CAN LARRY FEDORA RELY ON HIS RUNNING BACKS

North Carolina started the season against South Carolina in 2015 and I remember watching in awe as Elijah Hood ran all over the Gamecock defense in the first half. Then, he disappeared. Fedora just stopped running the ball. He even took Hood out of the game late when he needed his best talent on the field. UNC ended up losing that game and Hood ended the game with 13 carries and he averaged over 10 yards per carry. In their three losses that season, Hood averaged 13 carries and 107 yards per game. Imagine having a guy that can do that and just not giving him the ball?

Hood returned last year with T.J. Logan but Fedora ran the ball even less and the lost more. It’s one of the most inexplicable things in the ACC. Fedora has a history as a spread guy but he’s never been as fortunate at the running back position as he was the last two years. It looks like he’s fairly fortunate again this year with Jordon Brown and Michael Carter. Both backs played well against Cal and Fedora gave them a decent amount of carries.

After the game it was obvious that UNC will have to run the ball to win games this year and they will also have to use their backs in the passing game. The Tar Heels don’t have NFL guys at receiver like they’re used to. They’ve been able to stretch the field in both directions because of the amount of talent they’ve had. Now teams will focus on Austin Proehl and the other guys will struggle to get open against good defenses because they’re not as talented. That means that you have to run the football to open up the passing game. It also means you have to incorporate swing passes and creative screens to get the ball to your running backs in space. That draws defenders and makes those tight windows over the middle a lot bigger.

MYLES DORN AND DONNIE MILES IN RUN SUPPORT

The safeties for UNC were among the most impressive players on either side of the ball against Cal. Even though the safeties played deep for almost the entire game, they both flew up the field on run plays to provide support and contain. When I say “flew” I mean it. These guys just appeared into the screen and made plays on the runner. Miles did the same on a nice interception on a play where the line flushed the quarterback out of the pocket.

I’ve always felt that Houston’s defensive scheme in 2015 was the best when it comes to containing Lamar Jackson. In that game they utilized their safeties as contain guys. The blitzed up the middle (we saw that a lot last year, obviously) and their safeties played in a sort of zone coverage in the flats that served as a dual role of contain guy if Lamar broke out.

UNC has the athletes to do some of the things we saw Houston, Wake Forest, Houston again, and LSU do to contain Lamar Jackson. They’re not as fast as LSU across the board so they probably can’t just lineup and challenge the offense. They do have the edge rushers and interior athletes that Houston and Wake did as well as the safeties to contain on the outside. The question is do they have the depth and talent at cornerback to match up with Louisville? Also, do they even want to get away from the basic stuff they did last week?

ADDITIONAL THINGS TO KEEP AN EYE ON

  • UNC’s kicker, Freeman Jones, missed a kick last week. Could be a factor with their offensive struggles.
  • Chazz Surratt looks exactly like Tim Tebow when he runs the ball. It’s weird.
  • Jordan Cunningham and Anthony Ratliff-Williams are the most likely players to be targeted on a deep ball.
  • R.J. Prince was very shaky at guard for UNC last week. He could be the weak link on third downs going against Jonathan Greenard.
  • UofL rotated defensive linemen a lot last week. Might be something to keep an eye on if UNC runs the ball more and some of the backups aren’t as effective.