UNC defense, left guessing against Baylor, searching for answers after record-setting defeat

North Carolina senior Landon Turner (78) is embraced by teammate Nazir Jones (90) following their 49-38 loss to Baylor.
North Carolina senior Landon Turner (78) is embraced by teammate Nazir Jones (90) following their 49-38 loss to Baylor. rwillett@newsobserver.com

One by one, and one play after the next, they lined up at quarterback for Baylor, different players who presented different challenges for a North Carolina defense that had no idea this kind of thing was coming.

Leading into their game against Baylor on Tuesday here in the Russell Athletic Bowl, the Tar Heels in recent weeks had dedicated themselves to understanding the intricacies of one of the best offenses in the country. They tried to figure out it worked, and how to stop it.

All the while UNC knew what it would see on Tuesday would be different. The Bears, after all, were without their two best quarterbacks, both out with injuries. Baylor's best running back was out, too, with an injury, and so was its best receiver, Corey Coleman, who'd won the Biletnikoff Award.

Nonetheless, UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said, the Tar Heels prepared as if Baylor would run its usual offense – the one it ran when it was healthy and when it appeared the Bears might be headed for a berth in the College Football Playoff.

“Really none of what we practiced is what they ran,” Schoettmer said after UNC's 49-38 defeat on Tuesday at the Citrus Bowl Stadium. “We practiced all for their traditional offense, what they've been doing all year – just with 13 at quarterback.

“So when they came out in the wildcat, they brought 7 into the game, 5 in the game, 22 in the game, 28 in the game at quarterback – 13. They threw a bunch of things at us.”

Schoettmer was listing off the uniform numbers of the players Baylor lined up at quarterback, starting with Chris Johnson, the third-string quarterback who began the season at wide receiver. He started at quarterback on Tuesday but the Bears quickly lined up others at the position.

By the end of the first quarter Baylor had used five players, including Johnson, at quarterback. The others – running backs Johnny Jefferson, Terrence Williams and Devin Chafin, and receiver Lynx Hawthorne – all lined up in the shotgun, in the wildcat formation, and they usually ran.

The Bears had used the wildcat before. The Tar Heels were aware of it, and knew that Baylor used it often against Texas in its final game of the regular season. But UNC wasn't prepared to face the wildcat as much as it did on Tuesday – over and over again, one play after the next.

“Running the wildcat is something that you can't prepare for as much, because they're a great passing team, as well,” Donnie Miles, the UNC safety said. “So we prepared for their passing and their running, and they came out in the wildcat all day and (were) able to run it down our throats.”

Which is one way to put it. Baylor ran from the start, and ran effectively, and the Bears kept running – and running. And running and running. They ran through holes between the tackles at the line of scrimmage. They ran to the outside, up the sideline. They ran everywhere, and anywhere.

And when it was over Baylor had run for 645 yards – more than any team had ever gained in any bowl game in history. Those 645 rushing yards were the most the Tar Heels had ever allowed, and Baylor surpassed the previous record by 150 yards.

Said UNC coach Larry Fedora: “We thought they would throw the ball more than they did.”

And there was the Tar Heels' primary problem: they were left to guess what Baylor would do without four of its best offensive players. And they guessed incorrectly. Earlier in the week Fedora acknowledged that he wasn't quite sure what to expect out of Johnson, the Bears' quarterback.

Johnson didn't begin to play extensively until Baylor's victory on Nov. 21 against Oklahoma State. And though he completed seven of his 24 attempts during a defeat against TCU the next week, Fedora and his defensive staff clearly respected Johnson's throwing ability.

The passing game never seemed to be significant part of the game plan, though, for Baylor, which threw for 111 yards on Tuesday. Maybe it might have been, Fedora said, until Baylor began gashing UNC's defense with the run.

“We thought they would do basically what they had been doing,” Fedora said. “... All they did was come out and just run it down our throat. They may have had the same game plan (to pass more) but when they realized they could just continue to run the football, there's no need to throw it.”

Schoettmer and his teammates said they tried to adjust, particularly when it came to fundamentals. They tried, they said, to find better positioning to make tackles. They tried to be in the right places.

Schematically, though, the Tar Heels never appeared to change what they did from the start. The defensive performance left players without many ways to explain it.

“We came in at halftime, we tried to (fix) it up and they came out and they had even more stuff for us the second half,” Shakeel Rashad, the senior linebacker, said afterward.

“We made adjustments,” Miles, the safety, said before adding that UNC simply failed to execute.

Baylor's tempo was another challenge. Fedora's offense is known for its speed and for not giving defenses a chance to breathe.

Baylor takes it to an extreme, though. The Bears ran 102 plays, a lot of them with only about 10 to 15 seconds between the end of one and the start of another.

“Even our offense would tell you that they're faster,” Schoettmer said. “They're the fastest team in the country. I don't know how many plays they ran but for the first or second drive, when the ball was tackled, they were running the play within 10, 12 seconds, which is unheard of in college football.”

The Bears' tempo contributed to the records they set – to the 645 rushing yards they gained, in particular. They averaged 7.7 yards per rush – a high number but not one that was as stunning as their rushing total or their total overall yards (756).

The Tar Heels had no defensive answers, and so the Bears kept running. In the literal sense. In the figurative, too.

Afterward Fedora wasn't in the mood to entertain specifics of the defensive breakdowns. Were they more the result of UNC's scheme or that Baylor dominated physically at the line of scrimmage?

“Uh, let's say 50-50,” Fedora said after repeating the question. “How about that? Is that good?”

Earlier in his meeting with reporters Fedora had been asked if he ever could have envisioned this. Baylor not only ran for 645 yards, but it did it without four of its best offensive players.

“No, I didn't believe that they would run for 645 yards, actually,” Fedora said dryly. “You know, I didn't ever think that.”

The Tar Heels arrived in Orlando seeking their 12th victory, which would have set a school record. They left with a defeat that provided a disappointing ending to a breakout season – UNC's best since 1997.

The Tar Heels at one point won 11 consecutive games. They won in memorable fashion at Georgia Tech and at Pitt and at Virginia Tech, where in victory UNC clinched the Coastal Division.

Yet in their final two games, against Clemson in the ACC Championship and against Baylor on Tuesday, the Tar Heels could do little to slow two of the best offenses in the country. Before Tuesday it appeared that UNC had an advantage against Baylor, what with the Bears' injuries.

That advantage turned out to be nonexistent, though. Without its best quarterback, running back and receiver, Baylor simply adjusted. Jefferson ran for 299 yards and three touchdowns and Chafin for 161 yards and one touchdown. They were running backs at quarterback, running all over UNC.

The Tar Heels attempted to adjust but couldn't. And when they did Baylor countered. Fedora and his players never expected to end their season like this, allowing more rushing yards than any UNC ever had. In defeat the Tar Heels found many surprises.