It took all of one game for North Carolina’s play-calling-by-committee approach to generate questions, and confusion, amid the Tar Heels’ 33-24 season-opening defeat against Georgia.
UNC on Saturday night ran 19 times and passed 40 – and still gained more rushing yards (159) than passing (156). And so it was an obvious question: How’d that happen? How does an offense pass twice as often as it runs when running was so clearly more effective than passing?
And how much did the committee play-calling approach hinder the offense, if any? If you remember, there were questions entering the season about how play-calling would work, with several coaches involved.
Chris Kapilovic, the offensive coordinator, is also the offensive line coach. He works on the sideline on game days. Keith Heckendorf, the quarterbacks coach, is in the coaches booth in the press box. He and Kapilovic are in constant communication about plays. Larry Fedora is involved, too.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Fedora, the Tar Heels head coach, defended the play-calling on Monday. It was a Labor Day that, for Fedora and his players, must have felt a lot like Labor Day 2015. Back then Fedora was left to explain controversial play-calling in a mistake-filled defeat against South Carolina.
Long story short: Fedora said that against Georgia the offense was too inconsistent to establish a more consistent running game, and that the Tar Heels too often found themselves in unfavorable situations (2nd-and-long, for instance) that precluded more runs.
He also placed the onus of a play-call – whether to pass or to run – on quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
Two of Fedora’s explanations stood out. First, on whether UNC had planned to throw as much as it did:
“We don’t really go into a game plan saying let’s throw it this many times, let’s run it this many times. It’s more dictated on what the defense does, and how we’re performing in the game. If we were running the ball effectively, then we probably would have run the ball quite a bit more, actually.”
It’s the same it’s been for five years now. It’s not any different. It’s just different people, but the system and the way we do it is the same.
And then Trubisky’s role in determining whether a play is a pass or a run:
“There’s quite of bit of option there. Based on what the defense does. So in our typical play-call system, a lot of times a run is tagged with a pass. And so it’s based on what he sees defensively. If he sees what he wants he can throw it. If he doesn’t see what he wants, he can run it. And in that scheme, he also can either hand it off or he can keep it himself. So it’s a lot of that in our offense.”
Clearly, to some extent, Georgia manipulated UNC’s offense. Fedora acknowledged that, at times, the Bulldogs showed one defensive look before the snap before changing into another after the snap.
But Trubisky also missed several downfield throws. Later in the game, penalties affected UNC’s offense. Memories of the Tar Heels play-calling, though, is likely what will most endure from Saturday.
People will remember the disparity – 40 passes to 19 runs – and remember that Elijah Hood, probably UNC’s best player, received 10 carries. That wasn’t necessarily the plan, Fedora said, but he also said there was no definitive plan to run a certain number of times.
“It’s the same situation as always,” Fedora said. “If we run the ball good enough, then we didn’t throw it enough. If we don’t throw it well, then we didn’t run enough. It’s always the same thing.
“We go in with a game plan to take advantage of what they give us, and unfortunately in that game we didn’t know what they were going to do in a lot of the situations. And we had to adjust.
“And if we hit on some of those big plays that I expected us to, some of the layups that we got, and it may be a different style of game. But it just – it wasn’t.”
And so the Tar Heels lost, and then faced questions about play-calling. In some ways Fedora is right: There are always going to be these types of questions when something goes wrong.
And if some of those deep passes had connected, it could have been a different game. It wasn’t, though. Those long throws fell incomplete while UNC averaged more than 8 yards per carry, leaving many to wonder why the offense didn’t continue to stick with what was working.
Fedora said he had “no problems” with the mechanics of the play-calling – the communication among himself and Kapilovic and Heckendorf.
“It’s the same it’s been for five years now,” Fedora said. “It’s not any different. It’s just different people, but the system and the way we do it is the same.”