Larry Fedora has been adamant since his arrival on the critical importance of all three phases doing their part. In his final season at Southern Miss in 2011, the Golden Eagles tallied 21 non-offensive touchdowns, ranging from punt returns to interception returns.
On Saturday, points from all three phases led to a 16-0 lead after the first quarter. Romar Morris scored on a two-yard touchdown run less than 10 minutes in. Kareem Martin and Brandon Ellerbe combined on a safety sack with 2:25 left on the clock and T.J. Logan returned the ensuing free kick 78 yards for a touchdown.
Fedora stopped short of heaping large helpings of praise on those phase-specific efforts.
“We were probably pretty good in our special teams and I think defensively we were probably good for about three quarters,” Fedora said. “Offensively, we were probably about 50-50 throughout the game, actually.”
That’s the point, of course. By taking the pressure off any one particular phase and sharing the workload, perfection is not required for success.
Take UNC’s offense, for example. The Tar Heels churned out 345 yards, roughly 90 yards below their season average. Quarterback Marquise Williams struggled with accuracy early before finishing 19-of-33 for 171 passing yards and a touchdown.
Despite five of the first seven drives totaling 50 yards without any points, UNC held a 29-3 lead less than five minutes into the third quarter thanks to the safety and a pair of kicks returned for touchdown.
“Any points on the board help you,” Williams said. “We weren’t executing at first, a lot of rust, but we started to get the hang of it. I started to get my little buzz down and guys were starting to feel it. It feels good when special teams is making plays and the defense makes plays.
“It’s unbelievable how much they’ve turned the season around.”
Logan’s return for touchdown counts as a kickoff return, which makes him the second player in school history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in a season (Brandon Tate, ’06). It was also the first kickoff return for touchdown in UNC’s bowl history.
Ryan Switzer added his fifth punt return for touchdown in as many games with an 86-yard return in the third quarter. The Belk Bowl MVP tied the NCAA record and set a new ACC mark with his five punt returns for touchdown this season.
Switzer also set school records in return yards in a season (502) and single-season punt return average (20.9 ypr).
While special teams did ignite the 6-1 close to the 2013 campaign with seven returns for touchdowns, the offense also played a vital role in averaging 202.2 rushing yards per game over the final six contests.
UNC, behind Logan’s 77 rushing yards, netted 174 yards on the ground against a Cincinnati run defense allowing just 98.7 yards per game (5th nationally) on the season.
Oddly enough, the most consistent phase throughout the season has been the defense. UNC held Cincinnati to a season-low 349 yards of offense and the Bearcats’ 17 points represent the second-lowest point total this fall.
The combination of three effective phases, despite breakdowns in each, prevented Cincinnati from pulling any closer than 13 points over the final 47:12 on Saturday.