As I sat in my seat at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, watching Jimmy Clausen sail a deep pass to Mike Floyd as Osaisai flailed helplessly to stop a score, I thought to myself, “wow. ND is a really explosive team.” And they are. This year, much more than most recent Notre Dame football seasons, the Irish can and pretty often do score from anywhere on the field. And yet, despite such “suddeness,” they can’t quite keep up with the pace set by the North Carolina Tar Heels.
You’ve probably read plenty about how the Tar Heels have a couple of very exciting young wide receivers, Tate and Nicks. And you’ve probably heard about how opportunistic the Tar Heels have been on defense. But that sort of glosses over the real story. So here’s the real story: The Tar Heels not only thrive on big plays, they essentially survive on the big play.
The 4-1 Tar Heels are a good team, no doubt, and thanks to head coach Butch Davis’ excellent recruiting the Tar Heels represent the most talented team the Irish will have faced to this point in the season. But the Tar Heels don’t beat teams by out-executing their opponents, scoring on long, 10-13 play drives. No, the Tar Heels beat opponents by out-executing, and then out-running their opponents on one huge play here or there.
Of 22 touchdowns scored by the Tar Heels, 27% came by virtue of a play of 50 or more yards within the scoring drive. That’s an amazing number, particularly when you consider, as “explosive” as ND’s offense might be, only one of the Irish’s 18 TDs involved a play of 50+ more yards.
Even when the Tar Heels don’t score on a 50+ yard play, they pretty often use a big play of 30+ yards to help them score. Of the 22 scores, 13 or 59% were the result of a drive that took advantage of a play of 30+ yards. 41% of UNC’s scores originated from outside of the red-zone.
Against McNeese State, the first game of the year, the Tar Heels actually trailed at one point 20-14. In that game, 4 of UNC’s 5 TD scores utilized a play of 50+ yards; an 82 yard punt return, a 4 yard pass set up by a 54 yard run, a 57 yard pass, and a 5 yard pass set up by a 71 yard rush.
Against 1-4 Rutgers, the Tar Heels scored 6 TDs. A 69 yard pass TD, 3 TD drives that started within Rutgers territory, and a 66 yard INT return are among those scores. So 50% of their scoring didn’t need to cover any more than 49 yards. The one “long, sustained” drive covered 68 yards in 7 plays in 4 minutes.
In their one loss, they managed to score a 32 yard pass and a 50 yard rush against VaTech.
In Miami, the Heels scored 4 TDs. One scoring drive originated on the ‘Canes’ 43, another involved a 37 yard pass, one essentially was a 74 yard pass, and the other involved a play that included a 22 yard pass and a 15 yard personal foul penalty.
Finally, against UConn, the Heels’ first TD was set up by a INT return to the UConn 15, their next TD was the result of a punt block in the end zone, followed by a 39 yard rushing TD, a 23 yard INT return, and scoring drive that started on the UConn 39.
Meanwhile, among all that explosiveness, the Heels average just 3.66 yards per rush and rank 89th in passing offense. Which would seem to indicate the best way to stop the Tar Heels is to slow down the Tar Heels. (Easily said…)
There’s no doubt that the Tar Heels are well coached and much improved over the 2006 edition the Irish faced in South Bend. However, the Tar Heels do appear to be ripe for a beating by a very good team in the traditional sense; one that doesn’t turn the ball over, can sustain drives, and can limit the big Carolina quick-strike plays that set up so many scores for UNC. Can the Irish be that team? Can a team that depends on so many tackles by the safeties limit the big play? Can Kyle McCarthy and David Bruton chase down Tate and Nicks?