About 83 percent of the time North Carolina’s offense will run a play, the result might be unremarkable and forgettable: a 7-yard pass here, a 2-yard run there, an incomplete pass here, followed by a run that might be stopped at the line of scrimmage.
The majority of a football game consists of those kinds of plays – ones that don’t work as intended, ones that defenses snuff out before they begin, ones that might result in a gain of 1 yard, or 2, or even 8 or 9, but ultimately are forgotten.
And then there’s the other 17 percent of UNC’s plays. The explosive plays.
Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, defines them as passes that gain at least 16 yards and runs that gain at least 13 yards. Those are, by his definition, explosive plays. And they have accounted for 60 percent of UNC’s total yards, and 29 of its 61 offensive touchdowns this season.
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The Tar Heels’ propensity for the big play – the explosive play – are why they’re averaging 7.46 yards per play, which ranks second nationally. That number reflects UNC’s talent for producing long runs and longer passes, the kind that can demoralize a defense.
“When you get rolling, man, there’s nothing like it,” Ryan Switzer, a junior receiver, said Tuesday. “… We don’t know when it’s going to hit like that, but when it hits – for us it usually hits in spurts. So to get rolling like that, it’s something we would really, really like to have come Saturday.”
Entering the ACC Championship game against Clemson on Saturday in Charlotte, UNC has generated 5,948 yards on 797 plays. Of those 797 plays, 132 fit Fedora’s “explosive” definition – meaning they were passes that gained at least 16 yards or runs that gained at least 13 yards.
And on those 132 explosive plays, UNC gained 3,558 yards. To put it another way: About 17 percent of UNC’s plays have accounted for 60 percent of its yards, and on those explosive plays the Tar Heels have gained roughly enough yards to cover 35 football fields.
The explosive plays have come in a variety of ways on a variety of plays. They range, in distance, from the 89-yard touchdown pass from Marquise Williams to Switzer on UNC’s first offensive play against Duke – a flea-flicker – to Elijah Hood’s 13-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter of an eventual overtime victory at Virginia Tech.
Williams, a fifth-year senior quarterback, has accounted for the majority of UNC’s explosive plays. He has thrown 56 of UNC’s 63 explosive passes and also has 24 explosive runs. On those runs – five of which came in the comeback victory at Georgia Tech, where the Tar Heels trailed 21-0 – Williams is averaging 22.3 yards per carry.
Which is nearly as productive as Hood, a sophomore running back, has been on his explosive runs. Twenty-eight of Hood’s 192 carries – about 15 percent – have fit Fedora’s definition of explosive. On those 28 runs, Hood scored four touchdowns, gained 655 yards and is averaging 23.4 yards per carry.
The most explosive of all of UNC’s explosive plays, though, belongs to Mack Hollins, a junior receiver. He has gained at least 16 yards on 15 of his 26 catches. He is averaging 38.6 yards per reception on those 15 catches, and seven of those plays ended in the end zone.
The four longest passes Hollins has caught this season – they covered 74, 64, 57 and 53 yards – were touchdowns. He earned his reputation as a big-play receiver last season when he averaged 17.5 yards per catch. This season he’s averaging 25.8 yards per reception.
Hollins attributes UNC’s big-play success to its balance. Defenses can either try to limit Hood and the rushing game, or they can try to limit Williams and his receivers in the passing game. But they haven’t been able to do both.
“If you look back it, it’s safeties being up closer than they should because the running backs are doing big things,” Hollins said, speaking specifically of his success. “And if they don’t have people in the box, the run game makes plays. So they have to respect the run.
“That’s something we haven’t had in past years as well as we have this year.”
UNC’s defensive turnaround this season has created plenty of attention, but the offense is in the midst of something of a renaissance, too. Overall, UNC is averaging nearly 2 yards more per play this season than last season. The per-play average of 7.46 yards is the best of Fedora’s four seasons at UNC.
In a lot of ways, the offense this season is what Fedora envisioned when he arrived. He has a dominant running back in Hood, several receivers – Hollins, Switzer, Bug Howard, Quinshad Davis – capable of stretching the field and then Williams weaving it all together.
Fedora’s version of the spread offense, like most spread offenses, is built on the concept of creating mismatches and vertical seams in defenses. UNC has advantages that aren’t inherent to all – or even most – teams that use the spread, though.
“We’ve got great length on the outside, so those guys can really make plays,” Fedora said. “And we’ve got great speed and quickness on the inside. Then you’ve got a running back who can go anytime, and you’ve got a quarterback who can beat you with his arm or his leg.
“We have a lot of pieces of the puzzle with those playmakers.”
UNC’s goal, week after week, is to make eight explosive plays. It has met that goal in every game and often exceeded it.
The Tar Heels are averaging 11 explosive plays per game. They made a season-high 15 against Duke and had 14 at Virginia Tech. They had 12 explosive plays at Georgia Tech and 10 – five of them in the first quarter – in a 45-34 victory Saturday against N.C. State.
“We’ve reached that goal every single game this season,” said Seth Littrell, UNC’s offensive coordinator. “At the same time, each week’s new. And each week presents a new challenge. It’ll be a challenge this week but I think our guys are definitely ready for it and I’m excited to see them play.”
Littrell, like Hollins, attributed the big-play success to the conundrum opposing defenses face: try to stop the run or try to stop the pass. Duke tried to limit UNC’s running game, and so the Tar Heels during a 66-31 victory responded with 12 explosive passes.
The next week, Miami tried to limit UNC’s passing game. And so the Tar Heels in that game, a 59-21 victory, produced eight explosive runs. The success, Littrell said, is a result of UNC exposing the defense’s “run-pass conflict.”
“At the end of the day you’re trying to take your shots,” Littrell said. “And we’ve done a pretty decent job all year of hitting those shots.”
UNC’s explosive plays
First, the definition of an “explosive play,” according to Larry Fedora: passes of at least 16 yards, runs of at least 13 yards. Here’s how those explosive plays break down for the Tar Heels:
▪ Have accounted for 3,558 yards
▪ 5,948 yards gained overall
▪ Have accounted for 60 percent of total yards
▪ 132 out of 797 plays have been explosive
▪ 16.5 percent of plays have been explosive
▪ 16.5 percent of plays have accounted for 60 percent of its yards
▪ On 665 non-explosive plays, averaging 3.59 yards per play
▪ On 132 explosive plays, averaging 26.95 yards per play
▪ of 132 explosive plays, 69 have been runs, 63 passes
▪ Has scored 61 offensive touchdowns, 29 on explosive plays
Explosive plays for UNC by game
11 South Carolina
8 N.C. A&T
12 Georgia Tech
11 Wake Forest
14 Virginia Tech
10 N.C. State
Explosive plays by player
10 explosive passes to Quinshad Davis for an average of 21.8 yards, 1 touchdown
15 explosive passes to Mack Hollins for an average of 38.6 yards, 7 touchdowns
28 explosive runs for Elijah Hood, for an average of 23.4 yards per carry (655 yards), 4 touchdowns
9 explosive passes to Bug Howard, for an average of 30.8 yards, 2 touchdowns
11 explosive plays for T.J. Logan (six runs, three passes) for an average of 24.5 yards per play, 3 touchdowns
10 explosive passes to Ryan Switzer, for an average of 36.7 yards, 4 touchdowns