Offensive Notebook: Back on Track

After struggling for most of the game offensively at Connecticut, the Tar Heels found a way to consistently run the ball and move the chains in various ways through the air against East Carolina---a recipe for victory and a 3-0 start to the season.
"If you go back and you look at the last 18 minutes of the Connecticut game, I think we kind of carried a little bit of that confidence and a little bit of that mindset of how we would like to try to play into this ballgame," said UNC head coach Butch Davis after knocking off the Pirates. "We're still a long ways away from being the kind of football team that we need to be, but it was a good step forward."
In all, the Tar Heels produced a whopping 433 total net yards against East Carolina, which included 148 net rushing yards on 37 attempts (4.0 per carry) and 285 passing yards with no interceptions and no sacks allowed.
For the game, UNC averaged an impressive 6.9 yards per offensive play.
"I know with a very struggling offense, like we've had, it was a good performance to have in access of 400 yards with what everybody deemed a struggling offense," said Davis. "I thought T.J. Yates was outstanding. His composure, his poise, his percentages of completions were good. He was smart with the football. He's keeping guys alive, and he's keeping everybody in the routes."
"I thought our offensive coaches did an outstanding job in devising a way to try to find roles for our kids as they grow, because we're playing so many young guys," Davis added.
Carolina's offensive line has been battered with injuries in recent weeks and once again had to rely on players with minimal game experience, but the unit communicated remarkably well and did a fantastic job in keeping East Carolina's defensive players off Yates and the running backs.
"I thought another significant contributor to the way we played offensively is the offensive line got a chance to play together for a week," said Davis. "Last week's performance (against UConn) they struggled a little bit. This week obviously it was a little better."
"We had Jonathan Cooper, who was able to come back in and play some, and Greg Elleby," Davis added.
Yates took credit for some of the sacks allowed against Connecticut, and he did a significantly better job of making decisions and getting rid of the football this past weekend.
"Some of the sacks (against UConn) were my fault, not getting rid of the ball," said Yates. "I did that a little bit better this week, getting rid of the ball, and the protection was so much better than it was last week."
"I think there's any number of a couple of reasons that helps that (avoiding sacks) out," Davis said. "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."
The Tar Heels kept it simple up front offensively---sticking to basic protections and line calls---and the unit responded with its best game so far of the season.
"We kind of stuck to our 'base' protections, kind of 'seven man' stuff---not too complicated---and the offensive line protected very, very well," said Yates.
Tailback Shaun Draughn had a solid outing for UNC with 84 rushing yards on 19 carries, while big Ryan Houston continued to do his thing in short-yardage situations, scoring twice and tallying 41 yards on 12 carries.
"I thought our running game, as the game went on we got a little stronger, a little stronger," said Davis. "We started to make some good runs. We're very lucky. We've got a good combination with Sean and with Ryan. They're kind of the thunder and lighting deal. They just go out there and pull for each other and keep making plays that helps your offense out."
The Tar Heels successfully moved the chains against the Pirates not only with effective runs between the tackles on early downs, but also by completing several quick outside passes in the flats, which produced similar results to running plays.
As a result, UNC avoided risky second and third-and-long situations that could have swayed the momentum towards East Carolina.
"I don't know how many times---and I'm sure there were some but I don't remember which ones---but trying to stay out of second-and-nines to 14's, and third-and-eights to 15's. Those are just 'Sackfests' just waiting to happen," said Davis. "You're lucky if you can get out of there without giving up a lot of sacks. Being able to run and move the sticks (was important)"
"Sometimes some of the passes that we threw were extensions of the running game," Davis added. "They were three, four, or five yards, but it was second-and-five, and it's a lot easier to call plays and call protections and give yourself a chance when you're playing ahead of the count a little bit."
By switching the running plays in with the short passes, the Tar Heels controlled the tempo of the game and kept ECU's defense somewhat out of sorts.
"We just tried to change the tempo a little bit, you know," said Yates. "We went out there and called a quick play and kind of just go out there and see what they're doing, just switch up the tempo back and forth, back and forth."
In mixing up the tempo, Davis says it helped the Tar Heels keep the East Carolina defense from getting more chances to stand by and make note of the offense.
"One of the things that we felt like we had been guilty of in the past is allowing the defense a lot of time to diagnose (what the offense is doing)," Davis said. "(With them) going up there and them checking blitzes---if they've got something called, they're going to the other side and stuff like that---so we said, 'You know what? Let's kind of take the initiative to them. Let's get to the line of scrimmage and starting running more plays that we want to run against what ever and make them line up.'"
"By throwing the ball outside a little bit, getting them (the ECU defense) sideways, you can tire them down a little bit, and Coach Shoop did that to perfection calling the 'tempos' and the play call," Yates added.
The short passes by Yates also set up the Pirates for one big play---Jheranie Boyd's juggling 59-yarder---that helped break open the game for the Tar Heels.
"We knew that they were succeptable to some of the 'deep' balls," said Yates. "They kind of got ran by a couple of times this season and last season, so that's one thing we definitely put in the game plan. We didn't do it much. We just did it a couple of times, and it worked out good for us."
"I saw him (Boyd) bobble it the first time and then I kind of got blinded by somebody and didn't see it happen, and I heard the crowd go crazy," Yates added.
Although Yates was obviously thrilled at the long touchdown pass, his response immediately afterwards was stoic---a big smile and a raised arm.
"I was tired. I was really, really tired," he said. "I just walked off the field, but I was going crazy on the inside. I was just really tired at that point."
Some of the other offensive highlights for the Tar Heels included A.J. Blue again seeing action and completing his first career pass, along with the big-time play of rookies Boyd and Erik Highsmith, who combined for nearly 200 receiving yards and two scores.
"A.J. Blue came in," said Davis. "Each one of those kids are finding little, bitty things that they can add to try to help our offense. We're still a long ways away. I mean, there's still things that we've got to continue to strive to get better."
"The coaches are smart enough and the team is smart enough to realize that we don't have three NFL draft choice wide receivers right now,' Davis added. "I don't know when we'll have another Hakeem Nicks and those kinds of guys. We did need to be more balanced, to get the tight ends the ball, get the backs the ball, get the wide receivers the ball. Find ways to compliment the running game."
While the offense had to overcome an early lost fumble that led directly to East Carolina's first touchdown, Yates feels that the shared experiences the offense has worked through the last three weeks will serve them greatly now that ACC play is at hand with this coming weekend's clash with Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
"There's a lot of different things in the game that we had to overcome, like last week coming from behind (against UConn), and this week kind of sustaining the lead that we had," Yates said. "We've gotten in a lot of situations over the first three games. I think they're going to help us in conference play."
"It was great (beating East Carolina)," Yates added. "Everybody was happy. Everybody knew that this game was so big for us and so big for them. We emphasized so much on just finishing the fourth quarter and getting through, and kind of overcoming adversity as we did."