Looking Back on What’s to Come: Them Explosive Tar Heels

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?

Pictured here: McCarthy saving yet another touchdown. (via BGS)

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  • Mark

    I think this goes back to the Michigan game where everyone said ND was “lucky” that UM handed them so many turnovers. Once again, turnovers are not luck and North Carolina proves that. They are a good team because they do the two most important things in football, win the special teams and win the turnovers. One of their linebackers has blocked FOUR STRAIGHT punts. That’s not a typo, the same guy has literally blocked the last four punts he’s seen. This proves the point that turnovers are not happenstance and blind luck. There is absolutely NO secret to how this game will be won. Sunday just tell me who won the turnovers and special teams and I’ll tell you who won.

  • http://www.thewookierules.com The Biscuit

    Great analysis MQ. Even I am impressed with this one. So we do the following: 1) Hold onto the ball for long, sustained drives – if they don’t have it, they can’t make big plays. Plus, we’ll lose in a shootout. This will require us to be able to run the ball ~40% of the time or more 2) Protect the ball during those drives – no turnovers 3) Limit the big plays. Make the guys beat you by grinding it out – my guess is that they start to make mistakes when forced to play this way 4) Win the field position battle

    If we do all those things, we win, unless the kicking game is the deciding factor…

  • Craig

    ND’s fourth TD vs. Michigan involved a 60 yd completion to Golden Tate.

  • domer.mq

    Thanks, Craig. I’d forgotten that one. Edited the post to reflect as much.

  • domer.mq

    Thanks, Biscuit. I think the real key here is for ND to realize that if they get up by 21, they can’t get conservative in any way, because “shortening the game” doesn’t do much here. I think they have better quick-strike ability than even SoCal in 2005. Of course, their starting QB is out, and we’ve yet to really get a good sense of how good the backup is, but thus far he’s looked more than serviceable.
    If ND could reliably run 14 play drives behind Allen, Hughes, and Aldridge, then maybe play the ball-control game, but it seems ND’s best bet is to play the quick-time “ball control” game with 3 wide and a fair amount of passing.
    It’s just a tough position to be in, but I’d rather try strength versus strength than that weakness vs. perceived weakness stuff ND tried in the first few series against MSU.

  • http://www.southbendblarney.com southbendblarney.com

    Good analysis. I’ve seen a little of the Heels, and new they (especially Tate and Nicks) were explosive, but I didn’t realize how explosive.

    I’m not sure how ND should attack them defensively, but I’m thinking it should be aggressive. Hit their quarterback. If ND plays soft and gives their qb time to throw, the defensive backs will be eaten alive. (Their receivers are experienced enough to find holes in the zone.) It may not be 50 yards a pop, but 20+ is still taking care of business.

    As far as offense, it might be dream to think ND can win by running the ball at this point. I don’t know if Clausen is patient enough yet to short pass it all the way down the field. (Although the emergence of Rudolph in the middle makes it easier.) If the Heels get interceptions by blitzing or playing man (not sure what they do), ND should still try with the big play. If the Heels get pressure with just the front four, then I guess the quick passing game will have to do. Time for Jimmy to show how much he’s grown.

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  • trey

    This is why I stated earlier that I cant find it in my to think we’re going to lose this game. Yes, NC is explosive, and yes they are a good team. However, if you look at what has given our team the most trouble, it’s not explosive passing. We snuffed the hell out of Purdue trying to pull that s*** and we’ve been very good against big plays through the air this season. What hurts us the most is a pro-style rushing attack. For some reason, we cant seem to stop a good running game. Michigan(sucks!), MSU, Stanford…those are the games we had the most trouble and it was because they pounded on our defensive linemen and exposed our poor tackling LBs. I predict good things this weekend. I say we control the clock 65-35 and hold them under 20 pts.

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