Let’s be honest – while Duke and Virginia suffered embarrassing losses to FCS opponents over the weekend, a North Carolina defeat would have been an unadulterated disaster. Anything is possible, but when you consider that The Citadel was voted sixth out of nine Southern Conference teams in its preseason poll, a Tar Heel victory was all but insured before the opening kickoff.
UNC head coach Butch Davis admitted during Monday’s press conference that the contest was “a mismatch in some respects” and that his lines “outmanned” the Bulldogs. But having said that, North Carolina needed to kickoff the ’09 season by building confidence and setting a tone along the line of scrimmage, and both lines excelled in that accomplishing that objective.
Davis has consistently pointed to the necessity of pairing a strong rushing attack with the ability to stop the run during his tenure in Chapel Hill, and Saturday marked a positive beginning in both areas.
The Tar Heels amassed 261 total rushing yards on 44 carries, which accounts for the most yardage on the ground since tallying 285 yards against Duke in ’04. Junior Shaun Draughn led the way with 118 yards on 20 carries and Ryan Houston added 45 yards and two touchdowns. North Carolina averaged 5.9 yards per carry, a statistic aided by the fact that none of the top-four rushers were stopped for a loss.
“Certainly, they made some good decisions in the offensive line – some of the line calls [and] we got on the right guys,” said Davis, who added that he felt 7-8 offensive linemen were ready to play against Connecticut this week. “… I did think that our running backs made some good decisions with the football. One of the things that we’ve talked about with Shaun from last year going into this year is being a little bit more patient and allowing some of that stuff to unfold, and I thought he showed some good patience.”
The rushing carries were double the amount of passing attempts (22), which speaks to UNC’s production on first down. In 24 first-down rushes, the Tar Heels gained four yards or more 18 times, while also churning out seven yards or more on 13 occasions.
“We’re trying to establish our identity as being a running team,” said right guard Alan Pelc, who graded out at a team-best 90 percent with seven knockdown blocks. “In the past, we’ve had a passing game, and we’re still going to have to have that passing game, but to have that running game is a great equalizer. We’re really hoping that our running game will be big-time this year in our overall offensive performance.”
Part of that plan includes QB/RB A.J. Blue’s “Diesel” package, which was unveiled against The Citadel. Rather than taking a full series out of the shotgun, the true freshman was inserted in one-play intervals throughout the evening. The result was 14 yards on four carries, despite losing eight yards on one botched play.
Davis described the initial look at the specially-designed package as just the “tip of the iceberg” on Monday.
“Every week, there will either be different things or maybe some of the same things or there may not be any of it in that particular week,” Davis said of Blue’s role. “But we’ve got some things that he can do for this football team that we’ll keep available and if the situation arises during the course of a game, we’ll always have the ability to use it.”
Defensively, the Tar Heels were even more dominant than their offensive counterparts. The Bulldogs managed just 30 rushing yards and 153 yards total, as UNC held its opponent to an average rush of 1.5. That effort led to a 2-of-16 third-down conversion rate for The Citadel, which encountered a 3rd-and-7 or longer on 10 different occasions.
“I think the defensive line did a good job for us in keeping the linebackers free,” middle linebacker Quan Sturdivant said. “… So we were just trying to make plays for them.”
Case in point – midway through the first quarter, Bulldogs quarterback Bart Blanchard attempted a QB sneak on 3rd-and-1, but Sturdivant blasted through the line to meet the junior in his own backfield for a one-yard loss that ended the series.
That play was one of 10 UNC tackles for loss on the night, and when you add in a pass rush that yielded two sacks, three interceptions and four quarterback hurries, the Bulldogs were simply unable to endure the defensive chaos at Kenan Stadium.
With North Carolina’s defense boasting physical superiority over The Citadel’s student-athletes, the UNC coaching staff was forced to grade its players in a different manner.
“We looked at it [from this viewpoint] – ‘Did we play up to the level of how we felt like we should play?’” Davis said. “For the most part, after grading the film and talking to the players and showing the film yesterday, we were very much impressed with our effort. We felt like we chased and we pursued the ball well on defense. When balls did get completed or when the ball carrier did get to the perimeter, there were a lot of guys pursuing well and getting around the football.”
The Tar Heels were expected to win Saturday’s season-opener by four or five touchdowns, and they met those expectations, both on the scoreboard and in the film evaluation. Connecticut will present a much tougher assignment next weekend in East Hartford, but The Citadel victory indicates that UNC’s trench warfare is right on schedule in its development.