"There's any number of reasons (why)," head coach Butch Davis said following UNC's 31-17 win over East Carolina. "One is the quarterback getting rid of the ball. That's always a starting place when the quarterback is smart with the football and doesn't take sacks, that's a beginning. I think being able to run the ball and not play behind the count, trying to stay out of second and (long) and third and (long), those are sackfests just waiting to happen. You're lucky if you can get out without giving up a lot of sacks."
The difference in offensive output was dramatic. The Tar Heels put up 433 yards of offense against ECU; against Connecticut they managed only 233. The offense was patient and kept the Pirate defense guessing. Early on UNC relied on short passes, but those short passes gashed the Pirates' defense and prevented them from going full bore against quarterback T.J. Yates.
"We knew we'd get our shots downfield," Yates said. "Some of those screens out to Mookie (Erik Highsmith) on the backside worked very, very well for us."
The Tar Heels obviously made some adjustments to their offensive schemes and protections after watching Yates get taken to the East Hartford turf six times last week. What did they do differently?
"We worked very, very hard this week on the offensive line and protection, run-blocking and everything, " Yates said. "We kind of made some adjustments, went to some protections that are more our style, some seven-man blocking protections to try to keep them off and get them frustrated.
"The offensive line did an awesome job keeping me nice and clean - nice and safe," Yates concluded.
There were three keys to better protection this week:
1) Yates was smart with the football. He got rid the ball quickly and was content with a one-yard completion if that was all the time he had. Hanging onto the football to make a play may be an admirable quality at times, but getting rid of the football before the defense arrives is even more admirable.
2) The offensive play-calling was conducive to better protection. They used seven-man protections at times (as Yates said), but more than anything else offensive coordinator John Shoop called plays designed to get the ball out quickly. In addition, there was a little better tempo in the plays being run. The offense would get to the line and snap the ball, rather than wait for the defense to adjust.
3) The offensive line actually played better. It helped having Jonathan Cooper back (though he played a limited number of snaps), but overall – given the advantages inherent in executing No. 1 and No. 2 above - the offensive line acquitted itself well.
It remains to be seen if this was just a one-game phenomenon or whether the Tar Heels will be able to parlay their success at protecting Yates on Saturday into better protection for the season, but it was a huge improvement to the offense UNC ran for three-quarters at Connecticut.