UNC and time of possession: A brief history under Larry Fedora

Larry Fedora found reasons to be upset at times during North Carolina’s 37-36 victory against Pitt on Saturday -- but the disparity in time of possession wasn’t among them.
Larry Fedora found reasons to be upset at times during North Carolina’s 37-36 victory against Pitt on Saturday -- but the disparity in time of possession wasn’t among them. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Naz Jones said he didn’t feel fatigue on Saturday, when the North Carolina defense spent more than 41 minutes on the field during its 37-36 victory against Pittsburgh. The next day was a different story, though.

“It didn’t really hit me until Sunday morning,” Jones, the junior defensive tackle, said on Monday.

UNC essentially is always going to play at a time of possession disadvantage. That’s just how the Tar Heels are constructed under coach Larry Fedora, who mandates, above all, a fast offensive tempo. Even by Fedora standards, though, what happened against Pitt was extraordinary.

The Tar Heels, after a safety on their first possession and a lost fumble on their second, held possession for 33 seconds during the first quarter. Overall, they had the ball for 18 minutes, 51 seconds – compared to 41:09 for Pitt.

And yet Jones and his defensive teammates were at their best late, despite the time of possession disparity that forced them to remain on the field for more than two-thirds of the game. During Pitt’s final four possessions, UNC held the Panthers to 59 yards and three three-and-outs.

Asked on Monday if he’d have expected that kind of stand after how much time the defense spent on the field, Fedora didn’t hide his doubt.

“Not really,” he said. Instead of focusing on the defense, though, Fedora turned the question around.

“If you look, you can see how many plays we played on offense,” Fedora said. “And to do it in 18 minutes, 51 seconds, we’re moving. Our tempo and effort was really good.”

Despite the 22-minute disparity in time of possession, UNC ran five fewer plays than the Panthers. Fedora liked that part of it, at least. And he didn’t seem necessarily concerned by the burden the time of possession difference placed on his defense.

The Tar Heels didn’t wear down against Pitt, after all. If anything, they improved defensively. Fedora said he didn’t have an ideal time of possession split. He has said, several times, that he doesn’t concern himself with possession time, but when does the imbalance become a concern?

“I mean, anytime your defense is playing too many plays,” Fedora said. “Whatever that time is. Whenever they get worn down. But I don’t know, I’ll still take points over time of possession. So as long as we’re scoring points and we’re outscoring the opponent, we’re OK.”

That’s Fedora’s approach. It won’t change.

During his time at UNC, the Tar Heels have consistently ranked toward the bottom of the country in time of possession. They’re 126th nationally, ahead of two teams, through four games this season. Last season they were 127th. The season before that, in 2014, they were 128th – last nationally.

Since Fedora became the head coach in 2012, UNC has never ranked higher than 108th in time of possession. And so Jones and his teammates on defense are used to this sort of thing. They understand that they’ll be on the field more often – and for longer stretches, especially, if they can’t stop the opposition.

“We’re on the field because we didn’t stop them to get off the field,” Jones said two days after the UNC defense was on the field for more than 40 minutes. “So we can’t put that on anybody else but the defense. … We put ourselves in that predicament, really.”