Larry Fedora has been running his version of a spread offense for 16 years now and so he’s no stranger to concepts that have long become familiar and basic. Yet even to him the spread that Baylor runs is extreme in some ways.
“When they say, ‘Spread the field,’ … when you talk the field is 53 yards wide, I mean, they use all 53,” Fedora, the North Carolina coach, said on Monday. “There are times where you’ve got wide receivers that are lined up within a yard from the sideline.”
UNC and Baylor will play each other on Tuesday here in the Russell Athletic Bowl at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl Stadium. It’s a game between two powerful, productive offenses – a game between spread teams that prove the broadness of the term “spread offense.”
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There are similarities between the Tar Heels and Bears. They both rely on a quick tempo to keep defenses winded, and guessing. They both rely on an effective running game to help set up passing plays.
Yet there are perhaps as many differences, too, between offenses that rank first and second nationally in yards per play.
“So there’s so many different versions of the spread,” said Fedora, whose Tar Heels average 7.33 yards per play, which ranks first nationally. “Everybody uses the term but essentially you’re spreading the field and creating seams in the defense, is what you’re doing.”
Baylor and UNC both do that, but they go about it different ways. The primary difference, UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said, comes in Baylor’s alignment and formations, and its proclivity to use the entire width of the field.
“Because of how willing they are to horizontally spread you out,” Chizik said. “And a lot of spread teams don’t really operate, necessarily, with that design in mind. But they do. And they’ve got the athletes to really get you in space and miss. That’s why they’re averaging over 600 yards a game.”
UNC coach Larry Fedora compared Baylor’s offense to the one at Clemson, which gained 608 yards in its victory against the Tar Heels in the ACC Championship game.
To be precise, Baylor is averaging 604.2 yards per game. But the Baylor team that UNC will face on Tuesday isn’t the same Baylor team that amassed most of its enviable statistics.
The Bears during the final month of the season – and even after the season – were beset by several significant injuries. Baylor will be without its top two quarterbacks on Tuesday. And without All-American receiver Corey Coleman, the recipient of the Biletnikoff Award.
Shock Linwood, the junior running back who ran for more than 1,300 yards, is out, too. As is Pat Colbert, a starting offensive tackle. Art Briles, the Baylor coach, attempted to spin the injuries in a more positive way on Monday. He spoke of opportunities healthy players will receive.
“If you’ve got a bowl of cereal and you wanted bacon and eggs, you get to eat the cereal,” Briles said. “We got what we want. You know what I’m saying? That’s kind of where we are.”
Baylor’s ability to effectively spread the field, and thus clear defenders out of the middle of it, helped the Bears average 300 rushing yards per game. That, though, was before Linwood’s injury. Even so, two other Baylor running backs, Johnny Jefferson and Terrence Williams, average more than 6 yards per carry.
Fedora compared Baylor’s offense to the one at Clemson, which gained 608 yards in its victory against the Tar Heels in the ACC Championship game. The Bears, though, boast a deeper corps of receivers, Fedora said, and a “more mature” offensive line than the Tigers.
All of which will make UNC’s defensive challenge all the more formidable. Before UNC played against Clemson in the ACC Championship game the Tar Heels hoped that their experience against their own offense, in practice, would help defensively. It didn’t.
UNC will be accustomed to Baylor’s tempo, at least. The Bears and Tar Heels operate at a similarly quick pace. But beyond that, UNC cornerback Des Lawrence said, the Bears’ scheme is “not at all” like UNC’s, despite carrying the familiar title of the spread offense.