Defensively -- against Pirates offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's pass-heavy offense -- different didn't necessarily mean better.
Except for when East Carolina was inside the red zone, the Tar Heels went with a 3-3-5 defensive alignment - three down linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. At times they'd show four rushers, five or even six, but then would drop back eight into coverage and only rush three.
"We had that package in earlier, and we knew it would be big," defensive end Quinton Coples said. "We didn't feel uncomfortable about them running on us, we knew they were going to do a lot of passing. With three down linemen, there were more opportunities to have people outside covering for the passes."
Coples was right about the Pirate rushing attack. Even though the Tar Heels were backing out as many defenders as they could as often as they could, East Carolina would manage only 73 yards rushing on 21 attempts.
However, putting eight defenders in coverage did little to limit the Pirate passing attack – Dominique Davis threw for 417 yards, completing 41-of-58 attempts.
"We knew they were throwing the ball a lot, so we tried to get in a three-man front just to get more people out in space, to try and slow the pass down a little bit, because we knew we could stop the run," linebacker Kevin Reddick said following the game.
North Carolina did limit the Pirates to 20 points, even though the Tar Heels gave up 490 yards on defense. However, had it not been for four ECU turnovers -- two fumbles and two interceptions -- this obviously would have been a much closer game.
There were several occasions when North Carolina brought more than three rushers out of the 3-3-5 set, and did it in different ways. The Tar Heels would stand up linebacker Zach Brown outside and he would act as a de facto fourth lineman. They would bring a linebacker to either side of the nose guard, and rush both – bringing five rushers.
On one play, the Tar Heels had free safety Gene Robinson on the line of scrimmage; he didn't cheat up, he didn't come running from his free safety spot, he simply lined up on the line of scrimmage and made a beeline for Davis on the snap of the ball. He didn't get there, but he did force Davis to throw the ball before he was ready.
Most of the defensive pressure out of the 3-3-5 came in the first half, as the game progressed the UNC staff dialed more three-man rushes, dropping eight into coverage. Up 28-3 at halftime, it may have been the percentage play, but in the second half East Carolina threatened to make a game out of what had been a laugher up to that point.
The new innovations didn't end with the defense. Consider the case of A.J. Blue. In the second half, he split out as a wide receiver, lined up at fullback and got a carry on the fullback dive, lined up at quarterback in "Wildcat," (with quarterback Bryn Renner split out as a wide receiver), caught a pass out of the backfield, and had 18 yards on four rushing attempts, three of them from the tailback spot.
On virtually every offensive play, a different personnel group took the field -- and once on the field, motioned or shifted into heretofore-unseen formations. Curtis Byrd, for example, shifted out of his fullback position on one play all the way out to a split end spot.
One shift involved the Tar Heels moving from what appeared to be a one-back or even no-back formation, with the pieces of the puzzle reassembling themselves into a garden-variety I-formation, with a tight end and two wide receivers.
Altogether, the UNC game plan featured more players in a greater variety of roles than seen before.
"We've got a lot of good players and we want to get them on the field, so we were trying to find roles for guys both offensively and defensively," interim head coach Everett Withers said. "And get them some reps and some experience. This kind of game afforded us to do that with the type of offense that they run."