UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning was asked earlier this week how to stop ECU’s pass-heavy spread scheme. His response provided an eerie foreshadowing for how Saturday’s contest would play out.
“You’ve got to win up front so you can stop the run,” Koenning said.
The Tar Heels didn’t win up front and they didn’t stop the run. The result was a 55-31 dismantling that included the most plays ever run against UNC (101) and the second-most yards ever posted by an opponent at Kenan Stadium (603).
ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley ramped up the tempo on the opening drive and caught UNC off guard.
“The first drive they tempo’d us pretty quick,” middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer told reporters following the game. “We knew they were going to tempo us, but I guess we didn’t prepare enough for how fast they were going to go. We didn’t expect them to go that fast. That’s not an excuse, though; we’ve got to adjust after the first drive and be ready for it.”
Speed wasn’t the only method Riley utilized to surprise the Tar Heels on the opening drive. The Pirates attacked the middle of UNC’s defensive front with tailback Vintavious Cooper, who gained 23 yards on four carries.
By forcing UNC to defend between the hashes, ECU opened up the passing lanes on the sidelines, which is where quarterback Shane Carden (32-of-47 passing, 376 yards, 3 TD, INT) found Justin Hardy (6 catches, 66 yards) for a 6-yard touchdown pass less than four minutes into the game.
“They know that Norkeithus [Otis] and Darius [Lipford] are good off the edge and can run things down, so they did try to take them out of the game by tightening their splits and trying to run it up the middle a little bit and hurt us there,” Schoettmer said. “Then they squeezed and bounced it out and made our secondary make tackles.”
Cooper finished with 186 rushing yards on 35 carries, surpassing his season total of 161 rushing yards entering the game. ECU’s 227 total rushing yards also exceeded its season total (190) prior to kickoff.
ECU’s ability to run the ball opened up the passing game for Carden, whose 398 total yards of offense mark the third-best performance of his career.
“We went into the game saying we’re going to at least stop the run and make them throw the ball,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said following the game. “We didn’t do either. They ran it at will and threw it at will. The missed tackles were glaring when those came up.”
In 2012, UNC’s defense sacked Carden seven times and was credited with nine quarterback hurries. On Saturday, the Tar Heels failed to sack Carden and notched just four quarterback hurries.
“I’m not sure we got close to him,” Fedora said. “He sat back there and threw the ball. When you can run the ball at will it’s hard to do both and defend everybody.”
Senior defensive end Kareem Martin disagreed that Carden had plenty of time to work through his reads.
“I don’t think he had much time to pass,” Martin said. “I think he was just getting it out quick. When you’re doing three-step drops, there’s not much you can do. I felt like when he did hold the ball, we got decent pressure, just didn’t get the sacks. But as far as pressure, I thought we did an okay job even though we didn’t have any sacks.”
Regardless, North Carolina’s defensive game plan collapsed early and there weren’t enough adjustments available to patch the gaping holes.