Keys to the Game: North Carolina
by Raleigh Hokie, 11/5/04

For the first time in 58 years, the Hokie nation prepares to invade Chapel Hill, North Carolina for a football clash with the Tar Heels. Hokie fans have been looking forward to this one since the schedule was announced, snatching up tickets from any and every avenue. These teams last played seven years ago in a Gator Bowl turned ugly for the Orange & Maroon, so Hokies everywhere have a score to settle with the Baby Blues.

Until a week ago, this game didnít look to be competitive to most people, including Tar Heel fans. Suddenly, everything changed last Saturday night when UNC surprised third ranked Miami. The Tar Heels physically dominated the Hurricanes on both sides of the ball, running up over 500 yards of offense while frustrating Brock Berlin and the potent Canes attack. Miami left Chapel Hill stunned and out of the national championship picture.

Obviously, UNC is riding an emotional high heading into this game with the Hokies. To counter that emotion, it will be critical for the Hokies to get off to a good start. One way to do that is to get a big play on the first kick return. UNC has struggled in that area this year, so the Hokies may get an opportunity for a big play right away (assuming Tech receives the opening kickoff). UNC refused to kick to Miamiís Devin Hester and that strategy paid off. It will be interesting to see if they choose to kick to Eddie Royal or Mike Imoh.

Now, letís consider some of the important factors on offense and defense that will be key to a Tech victoryÖ.

When Tech is on Defense

On paper, this will be the best offense Tech has faced since the USC game. UNC has all the ingredients to be dominant on the offensive side of the ball Ė physical OL, experienced QB, power to run inside the tackles, and the speed to pressure the edges. In games against four of the better defenses in the ACC (NCSU, FSU, GT, UVa), the Tar Heels averaged almost 400 yards of total offense. They followed up last week with a 545 yard outburst against Miami.

All the stats suggest that this is a very explosive offense when they play well. Unfortunately for them, playing well has been an issue in many of their games. Moving the ball up and down the field hasnít been a problem, but consistency, decision making, and turnovers have been.

The Tech defense has been stout all season, but they will likely get pressed in this game. UNC has an excellent running game, but they also have an experienced, mobile QB that is very accurate in the passing game. That balance will be tough to contain, but look for the Hokies to rely on an old formula of physical, aggressive defense to force UNC into mental mistakes and turnovers.

Key #1: Gap Control vs. the Run

UNC has a stable of talented backs, but the key to the running game is their offensive line. Last Saturday night, UNCís offensive line physically whipped Miamiís defensive front throughout the game. Linemen were releasing cleanly into Miamiís LBs and pushing them ten yards down field with ease. The best player up front is center Jason Brown. He can be a dominating blocker in the run game and UNC uses him in variety of ways. He is a powerful at the point of attack, but he is also has the quickness to pull and get outside.

UNC will run from a full suite of formations, from under center or from the shotgun. Leading rusher Jacque Lewis is expected back from injury and he will team up with Chad Scott to form a solid 1-2 punch at tailback. UNC will also use bruising fullback Madison Hedgecock as a tailback when they are looking to get tough yards.

Expect the Tech defense to attack the line of scrimmage, securing gaps with both inside linebackers and bringing run blitzes off the edge. Penetration by the defensive tackles against the strength of UNCís offensive line will be critical in controlling UNCís run game. The defensive ends will need to be aggressive in their backside pursuit. From the Georgia Tech game film, expect UNC to run some naked bootlegs with Durant to take advantage of the aggressive DE play. Durant isnít as fast as Reggie Ball, so I would look for the Tech DEís to play pursuit from the wide side of the field and containment on the boundary. Accounting for the QB with a DE may be a risky move, but expect to see that early as the Hokies look to keep their linebackers focused on the tailbacks and the interior run game. As needed, they will adjust by crashing the boundary side DE down the line while using Xavier Adibi as a spy on Durant.

Look for Tech to adjust to an 8-man front when UNC shows the I-formation with a fullback leading. The Rover (Griffin/Daniels) has to be strong in run support against the cutbacks. This aggressive approach against the run will give Durant some opportunities in the passing game, so it will be key for Techís corners and safeties to stay disciplined in coverage and not get caught with play action.

Key #2: Pressure Durant; Force Him Left

Durant is a poised pocket passer that is very accurate to all areas of the field. Like most QBís at this level, he will make mistakes under pressure. Tech will blitz on occasion, but they cannot rely on blitzing to get to Durant. The defensive line will have to get enough pressure to allow the secondary to mix coverages down the field. Offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill knows the Tech defense as well as any coach in the country, so he will have his protections set up to address the many pressure looks of the Hokies. The matchup of Tranquill versus Bud Foster can be best measured by the pressure the Hokies get on Durant throughout the game. The Hokies will need to get consistent pressure, not only to get sacks, but to force Durant into mistakes and turnovers.

Durant is mobile enough to scramble away from pressure to either side, but he is much more dangerous scrambling to his right. He keeps his head up and is very accurate throwing on the run to that side. The Tech linebackers will have to stay disciplined in coverage and not commit to come up on Durant too soon. This is where the speed of Adibi is such a matchup advantage for the Hokies. He can stay back that extra split second before committing and then use his closing speed to chase the play down. Anderson or Rouse on the other side donít have the same type of football speed as Adibi, but both have played their responsibilities well this year in similar situations.

Key #3: Defend the Tendencies

UNC runs from every formation and they have balance to all areas of the field, but like most teams, they have tendencies that can be keyed by the defense. Versus Miami, their run tendency from the tailback position was to the left, particularly from the ďIĒ and 2-TE formations.

Miamiís defense is a standard 4-3 with classic strong and weakside alignment where Techís defense is a one-off 4-3 base with field and boundary alignment. Basically, that means Tech will generally move their corners and Whip LB from side to side based on the position of the ball relative to the hash marks. The Hokies will defend UNCís tendency to run left differently based on the position of the ball. With ball position boundary left, look for the Hokies to bring the Rover up into an 8-man front when UNC formations with a fullback or 2-TE. With ball position wide side left, look for the Hokies to align the Whip LB strong at the line of scrimmage.

Run tendency left doesnít mean that UNC doesnít run their tailbacks to the right. To keep the defense honest, they will run the tailbacks right 1/3 of the time (and more from shotgun or 3-WR formations). They especially like to run Durant to the right on bootlegs or QB draws. So, while Tech will align strong against the tendency left with a priority on pursuit, look for the defense to align more straight-up to the right side of the offensive formation with a priority on containment and force inside back to the pursuit.

UNC will counter with misdirection, including option or WR reverse action plays. Techís speed on defense is the key factor here. Bud Foster has faced the Gary Tranquill offenses on several occasions in the past, so look for the misdirection to be defended well by the Hokies.

Key #4: Disguise and Mix Coverages

Against Miami, UNC had as much success passing the ball as they did running it. Miami is a heavy man-to-man coverage defense, with very few adjustments or disguises in their looks. UNCís wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs all made big plays in the passing game.

Techís defense is far more multiple, with a variety of man, zone and nickel coverages. To the surprise of many, Tech has played a lot of zone this year and they have done so very effectively.

Against UNC, look for Techís zone coverages to take away the crossing patterns in the middle of the field and to provide help over the top against the TEís running down the seams.

Given his experience, Darian Durant shouldnít have problems reading the coverages, particularly with eight games of film to study. The short outside passes will be the best available options. It will get more difficult for Tech if UNC is having success running the ball and the Hokies have to adjust by bringing the corners and/or safeties up in run support. This will open up UNCís play action game against man coverage, which is a good matchup for UNC given their talent at receiver and the accuracy of their QB.

Key #5: Play Physical against the Receivers

The ability of receivers to block is an often overlooked aspect of a successful running game. As a group, UNCís receivers are not overly physical. Smallish receiver Jawarski Pollock will often line up in the slot as the third receiver. Most defenses will drop a safety down over the slot against that type of formation, but Tech usually puts the Whip LB over the slot receiver. That is a good matchup for Techís run defense, especially in this game with the matchup of James Anderson against Pollock. UNC will look to pull a lineman or get a TE out on Anderson, which should open up things for Techís defensive line and inside linebackers to get good penetration and backside pursuit.

A few teams have had success going deep against Techís corners, so expect UNC to take some shots down the sideline against both Jimmy Williams and Eric Green. Durant has decent arm strength, and like all of his passes, he is accurate with the deep ball. Durant will put the ball where it needs to be, so Green and Williams need to be physical with the receivers and play good technique on the ball. Tech will try to bait some of the deeper passes by showing press man or 2-deep coverage, only to drop into a 3-deep coverage at the snap.

Look for Tech to continue to play a lot of nickel on obvious passing downs, replacing the Whip LB with a third corner (Roland Minor). UNC will be tempted to run at that defensive set, but the three and four WR personnel groups will limit their ability to get a physical mismatch against the nickel defense. 

When Tech is on Offense

The Hokies offense found some things last week against Georgia Tech. It remains to be seen if that game was an anomaly or a breakthrough for a unit that has been searching for consistency. Their first chance to build on that game comes against one of the worst defenses in the ACC. For most of the season, UNCís defense has struggled against the run and the pass, although they showed signs of great improvement against the Miami Hurricanes.

Tech will be able to move the ball against this defense if they can avoid mistakes, especially penalties. Having a run/pass option in all down/distance situations will be very tough for the UNC defense to handle. I donít look for the Hokies offense to do anything fancy in this game. They will look to control the ball, control the clock, and wear down the UNC defense by playing physical football.

Key #1: Win the Line of Scrimmage

Without a doubt, the top priority for the offense this week is to be physical up front and dominate the trenches. UNCís defensive front isnít as physical as some and the depth has been depleted a bit by injuries and suspensions.

Techís offensive line has been challenged in practice this week to go out and win the physical battles up front. Look for big games from Jimmy Martin, Jon Dunn and Will Montgomery. Also look for both Jeff King and Jared Mazzetta to bounce back strong from disappointing performances against Georgia Tech.

Key #2: Rush for More Yards than UNC

This game marks the return of Techís RB coach Billy Hite to Chapel Hill. Coach Hite has had this game circled since UNC was added to the football schedule several years ago. Itís safe to assume that he will have his running backs super energized for this one.

Look for Tech to go right at the UNC defense with the power run game. We will see a lot of the 2-TE formations, but also look for more of the fullback formations as well. Look for a lot of runs between the tackles as Techís offensive line works to dominate the line of scrimmage. Expect to see all of Techís tailbacks, with the bulk of the carries going to Mike Imoh and Cedric Humes.

If the Hokies are successful running the ball, they should win this game rather easily. If UNCís defense is able to control Techís run game, then it will get dicey for the Hokies. Limiting UNCís possessions on offense is a top priority and that is best accomplished by Techís offense controlling the clock with the running game. It wonít look fancy and it might not make a lot of highlight reels, but successful execution of that game plan will put a big smile on the face of Techís running back coach.

Key #3: Run Randall Early

To complement the inside running game, look for Bryan Randall to run a few option keepers from under center and QB draws from shotgun formations early to keep UNC from pinching their defense against the inside runs by the tailbacks. Randallís quickness and ability to run will get the most attention from Tommy Richardson, the one starting UNC LB with enough athletic ability to account for Randall. To the other side, UNC will be forced to play containment against Randall with a LB or DE in combination with a defensive back. Running Randall early will force UNC to adjust on both sides of the formation, opening up other opportunities for the rest of Techís offense.

With Randall getting the attention of both outside LBís, look for Tech to put pressure on MLB Doug Justice with the fullback or tight end. From the I-formation, look for an early play action pass to the fullback in man coverage against Justice. Justice had a big game against Miami, but his limited quickness can be exploited if he is isolated in the run game and then stretched by play action.

Key #4: Exploit the Safeties

UNC plays a lot of standard 4-3, with Cover-2 looks in the secondary. Starting safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Kareen Taylor are solid, but neither is particularly fast. Look for the Hokies to take shots down the sideline over the top of the corners to see if the safeties can get over quickly enough. If both safeties have to shade to the outside receivers, look for the Hokies to go to King or Mazzetta running down the seam against a linebacker.

Knowing Tech is going to try to run the ball, UNC may go against their tendencies and bring a safety up in the box early in the game. UNC may believe that their best matchup is to get an extra player in the box and man up outside against Techís wide receivers. Keep an eye on #14 and #27 in blue to see where they line up when Randall is under center. If one continuously moves up toward the line of scrimmage, then UNCís game plan is to sell out against the run and take their chances outside against Randall and Techís young wide receivers. 

Key #5: Attack the Corners

Should UNC bring a safety up in run support, look for Tech to play action and go right at the corners to see if they can handle Eddie Royal, Josh Hyman and David Clowney in single coverage. That is a good matchup for the Hokies as long as Randall and the receivers are on the same page and they execute the pitch and catch.

Even if the safeties stay back, the Hokies should still get single coverage against a receiver on one side of the formation. From film review, UNC will probably conclude that they cannot cover the Tech TEís down the seam with their linebackers, so they will want to keep a safety inside to bracket the TE over the top. This will leave single coverage on one side against a Tech wide receiver. Depending on the matchup, look for Tech to run the tight end down the seam to occupy the safety and then go outside to the wide receiver one-on-one against the UNC corner.

Conclusions

The keys to this game for Tech are pretty straightforward. On offense, dig in, win the trenches, and run the ball. Force UNC to over commit to the run and then attack their corners and safeties in man coverage. On defense, get penetration against UNCís physical offensive line, contain their running game, and force Durant out of the pocket to his left.

The challenges are much tougher for the Tech defense in this game, so the offense will need to put some points up. Touchdowns are needed, so red zone execution will have to be improved over the Georgia Tech game.

Iíll be back early next week with the follow-up.

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