The Monarchs (8-3) dropped their season opener at East Carolina, 52-38, before losing 35-24 at Pittsburgh on Oct. 19. That familiarity in film study helps stress the quality of opponents that the Tar Heels are welcoming to Kenan Stadium this weekend.
“It helps your players to understand that they just played this opponent, so they know what this opponent is all about,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said on Wednesday. “Then you're able to watch Old Dominion against that opponent and say, ‘you know what, hey, this is a good football team.’ They are moving the ball around on this team and they are doing what they want, and so that helps.”
If anything, the crossover film proves that Old Dominion can play with ACC programs, according to middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer.
“It was a 10-point game with Pitt and they’ve put up 50-60 points on people, so it’s definitely an eye-opener and gets our attention,” Schoettmer said.
The Monarchs, who are in their first season as an FBS independent, are averaging 44.4 points and 532.5 yards per game behind quarterback Taylor Heinicke (326-of-455 passing, 3,892 yards, 32 TD, 8 INT). Four different wide receivers have 40 or more catches on the season while six have more 30 or more.
Old Dominion’s spread offense is similar to the wide-open passing attack of East Carolina. Fedora indicated that the Monarchs line up in an empty set roughly 50 percent of the time.
While ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley learned under former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach, those Red Raider pass protections are prevalent for the Monarchs as well. The ODU offensive line uses wider splits than most of UNC’s opponents and set Heinicke as far back as seven yards in the shotgun.
“While the ball’s in the air, the receivers run routes,” UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said on Wednesday. “So they’re running five-step type routes, not quite play-action routes, but similar in order to get down the field a little bit and that creates open lanes obviously for the quarterback to throw the ball.”
Koenning described Heinicke as being “Drew Brees good” in terms of accuracy and minimizing poor decisions.
“He’s not a 6-foot-4 guy, but when you get deeper, the rush disperses so those lanes open up for him,” Koenning said. “So it’s really smart what they’re doing.”
After three consecutive games against teams that heavily rely on their tight ends, the Tar Heels have been forced to readjust for another pass-happy spread offense.
“We’ve kind of changed up the scheme a little bit to try to get some more [defensive backs] and cover guys on the field,” Schoettmer said. “It still boils down to execution. I think we have a good game plan going in, a variety of different calls with different personnel all over the field, so as long as we execute I think we’ll be good.”
Old Dominion’s scheme creates 1-on-1 matchups in space, which presented problems for UNC defenders earlier in the season. Defensive backs and linebackers, according to Schoettmer, have done a much better job in practice in recent weeks making those 1-on-1 plays and that success has carried over into games.
That’s critical considering how lethal the Monarchs’ offense can be.
“There isn’t a team that they haven’t moved the ball down the field on,” Koenning said. “We’ve been sitting and talking about the St. Louis Rams’ ‘greatest show on turf’ deal where you had to wait until you got them in the red zone to try to stop them. That’s the respect that we have for this offense.”
Red zone defense has been an area of improvement for the Tar Heels over the past month. In UNC’s first five games, opponents converted 68.4 of their red zone trips into touchdowns (13-of-19). In the last five games, however, opponents are scoring touchdowns just 46.2 percent of the time in fewer visits (6-of-13).