“We didn’t execute the way that we needed to execute, and that’s the bottom line,” head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his Sunday evening teleconference.
The Tar Heels finished 2007 ranked 117th nationally (10th ACC) with a 99.17 yards per game average and a below-average 2.96 yards per carry mark. But Greg Little displayed his potential in the final two contests of the season, running up 243 yards and two touchdowns on a 4.86 yards per carry average.
Those performances set the table for an offseason full of hope and hype surrounding North Carolina’s rushing attack, and FCS opponent McNeese State was thought by many observers to be an ideal team to showcase a new group of tailbacks, including Little, Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston.
Why not? After all, the Cowboys finished last season ranked 51st in run defense (153.2 ypg) in their division, and lost the Southland Conference Player of the Year (defensive end Bryan Smith) to the NFL. Also of note was that North Carolina’s offensive line outweighed McNeese State’s defensive line by nearly 50 pounds per man.
But the breakout performance never occurred. Little totaled 40 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown, while Draughn contributed 33 yards on 7 rushing attempts and a score. Fortunately for the running backs, Brandon Tate (106 yards on 3 carries) became the first wide receiver in school history to run past the century mark.
Part of the problem was in making solid blocks at the line of scrimmage. North Carolina had anticipated a variety of stunts and slants to help create penetration for the Cowboys’ smaller defensive linemen, but Davis said that the great angles required for successful point of attack blocking were rarely obtained.
The offensive line and the running backs finally settled down in the fourth quarter, aided by a quickly-tiring Cowboy defense. Draughn first-ever touchdown run came on a 13-yard scamper with 9:02 remaining, and Little’s five-yard score put the game out of reach with 4:20 left to play.
“Draughn gave us a little spark in the running game in the second half,” Davis said. “[Draughn] scoring and then Greg scoring in the second half running the ball – they got a little bit better feel about being patient and not trying to rush things. Following the blocks to kind of set up and give them the opportunity to use good vision to make some good cutbacks, because both of the touchdown runs came on cutbacks when McNeese State was over-pursuing at the point of attack.”
Davis was not willing to assess Little’s performance on Sunday, only saying that the sophomore has things to improve on and to fix along with all of his teammates.
When asked if Little would still get the lion’s share of the carries in twelve days against Rutgers, Davis answered by going in a different direction.
“I really believe that it’s going to take three running backs in almost every game…” Davis said. “We had anticipated getting Shaun in the game earlier, but we never really got into any kind of a rhythm or a flow, because of the nature of the way that it was either feast or famine. We struggled moving the ball, but then all of a sudden, we’d hit a big play.
“I think that Shaun and Ryan Houston and certainly Greg – all three of those guys – are going to need to play. Ideally, you’d love to have guys playing to keep each other fresh so when they go into the game, they’re ready to go.”
Regardless of who lines up in the offensive backfield on Sept. 11 against the Scarlet Knights, UNC’s rushing attack must improve by leaps and bounds, or the lofty preseason prognostications will fall by the wayside.