Now that fall is officially upon the college football season, there’s no questioning the magnitude of the losses of Gio Bernard, Jonathan Cooper, Brennan Williams and Travis Bond to UNC’s rushing attack.
The concern has shifted to how quickly the Tar Heels can patch up the glaring holes left behind.
In Saturday’s 28-20 loss at Georgia Tech, UNC needed 24 carries to churn out 101 rushing yards. Romar Morris led the Tar Heels with 54 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, including a 23-yard scamper in the first quarter. A.J. Blue and Khris Francis combined for 44 yards on nine carries.
Bernard and Co. averaged 193.8 rushing yards per game in 2012, good for third in the ACC and 33rd nationally. Through three games this season, UNC is averaging 111.3 rushing yards per game. The Tar Heels’ 3.3 yards-per-carry average pales in comparison to their opponents’ 4.7 yards-per-carry mark.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following Saturday’s loss that the issue was a combination of things.
“It starts up front with the offensive line and your running backs,” Fedora said. “That’s where it is and blocking on the perimeter and doing all the little things. We’re not doing those things successfully. We have to be much better in that area as we’ve said each and every week. It’s becoming a trend.”
Even more troubling is UNC’s increasing inability to run the ball effectively as games progress. Against Georgia Tech, UNC ran for a respectable 79 yards on 15 carries. In the second half, however, the Tar Heels managed just 22 yards on nine carries.
That’s also becoming a trend.
While the 2012 ground game was more effective after halftime – 5.11 ypr vs. 5.07 ypr – the 2013 crew is going in the opposite direction. In the first half, UNC is averaging 3.7 yards per carry (205 yards on 55 carries). That average drops to 2.8 yards per carry (129 yards on 46 carries) in the second half.
It’s been even worse in the fourth quarter as UNC is picking up 2.2 yards per rush (47 yards on 21 carries) on the season.
“The running game was more effective in the first half,” Morris said following Saturday’s loss. “We’ve just got to keep working at the running game so it can open up the passing game.”
Morris described the problems as small details, indicating that it’s players not getting to where they need to be at the right moment. He refused to point the blame at any one position; instead, he highlighted the need for improved chemistry and efficiency.
“It’s everybody not doing their job the way they’re supposed to,” Morris said. “When everybody does their job, then you will see a tremendous effect in the running game.”
Due to the design of Fedora’s offensive system, troubles in the ground game tend to leak into the passing game. The second-year UNC head coach acknowledged the rushing issues prevented the offense from finding its rhythm following the win over Middle Tennessee two weeks ago.
Quarterback Bryn Renner completed 65.4 percent of his attempts while averaging 279.7 passing yards per game in 2012. Thus far in 2013, the fifth-year senior is completing 59.4 percent while throwing for 250.3 yards per game.
“It comes with time,” Renner said of the running game woes. “We have new guys up front and they’re still getting acclimated to the game. I think having a week off helped them. We do need to find running lanes and things like that, but we can’t pinpoint it on one thing. We just didn’t make enough plays to win.”
North Carolina has played two quality FBS opponents in South Carolina and Georgia Tech to date, which may skew the early statistics. The schedule doesn’t get any easier, however, as East Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami represent UNC’s next three opponents.