While North Carolina coach Larry Fedora attempted to explain how his team surrendered more rushing yards than any team ever had in any bowl game in history, the sound of Baylor’s celebration filtered through the walls on Tuesday night here at the Citrus Bowl.
The Bears were celebrating their 49-38 victory against the Tar Heels in the Russell Athletic Bowl and, all the while, Fedora tried to explain what was unexplainable – how the UNC defense allowed 645 yards rushing against an offense that was without four of its best players.
Maybe the 10th-ranked Tar Heels should have known what was coming. That No. 18 Baylor, without its two best quarterbacks, without its best wide receiver, without, even, its best running back, might try something different, something creative – something surprising.
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Yet Fedora and his players said afterward that they didn’t see it coming. That they weren’t anticipating Baylor to run wild with the wildcat formation – one in which it put running backs and, at times, a receiver at quarterback and just let them run free.
Could he have ever imagined anything close to this? Fedora thought about it for a minute.
“No,” he said, a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “I didn’t believe that they would run for 645 yards, actually. You know, I didn’t ever think that.”
The Bears did, though, with a game plan that later appeared genius in its simplicity: put the ball in the hands of some of their best, fastest players and force the Tar Heels to make stops. And they couldn’t.
“We thought they would do basically what they had been doing,” Fedora said. “We thought they would throw it around a little bit more.”
When healthy, Baylor (10-3) is known for its offensive balance – its ability to beat teams with the run and with the pass. But the Bears arrived in Orlando amid a nasty rash of injuries that left several important players unable to play.
Yet still, some UNC players said afterward they’d prepared as if Baylor would run its normal offense – the one it ran in healthier times. The Bears used the wildcat formation during a 23-17 defeat against Texas at the end of the regular season but, still, it caught UNC (11-3) off guard.
“Give them a lot of credit,” UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “Going into bowl season, we didn’t really prepare for any of that. We expected 13 to be the quarterback and for him to run their normal offense.”
Baylor’s No. 13 is Chris Johnson, the third-string quarterback. He began the season as a receiver then switched positions amid his team’s injury woes. Johnson, it turned out, was hardly the only one who took snaps for Baylor on Tuesday.
By the end of the first quarter, five Baylor players had lined up at quarterback:Johnson, running backs Johnny Jefferson, Terrence Williams and Devin Chafin, and receiver Lynx Hawthorne.
And they often executed, with great success, what appeared to be simple plays: draws up the middle or runs to the outside and up the sideline. Jefferson especially thrived, and finished with 299 yards on 23 carries. He averaged 14.4 yards per carry in the first half.
Chafin finished with 161 yards. The Bears’ 645 yards rushing were the most UNC had allowed in history by 150 yards. By the end of the third quarter, Baylor had already surpassed the 495 yards that Oklahoma gained against UNC in 1980. Before Tuesday that had been the most UNC had allowed.
Yet the Tar Heels still had hope, and a chance, late in the third quarter. The Bears led 35-24 when Elijah Hood, the Tar Heels’ sophomore running back, broke a 67-yard run that moved UNC insidethe Baylor 10. Moments later, though, T.J. Logan fumbled, the ball bouncing into the end zone.
Baylor recovered. And moments after that, Jefferson lined up in the shotgun, took the snap, broke to the outside, maneuvered past a couple of defenders and then outran UNC for an 80-yard touchdown that gave Baylor a 42-24 lead.
From there the Tar Heels never again cut their deficit into single digits. The defeat offered a difficult and sour ending to the Tar Heels’ best season in 18 years.
UNC, in coach Larry Fedora’s fourth season, tied the school record for victories with 11, and the Tar Heels won those games consecutively after a season-opening defeat against South Carolina. But UNC’s season ended with consecutive defeats – ones in which its defense failed against powerful offenses at Clemson and Baylor.
Fedora spoke afterward, in part, about his optimism for the future. His players spoke of the foundation they’d set, the legacy they’d left.
Yet they spoke, too, about something they never saw coming but perhaps should have. They spoke of a Baylor rushing offense the Tar Heels were helpless to stop, after they’d prepared for weeks for something different.