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When it comes to UNC’s offense, NC State simply has to account for a few several things

Virginia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It looks so far like UNC’s offense is elite-level good, which is not a shocking turn of events given all the skill talent that the Tar Heels returned this season, led of course by Sam Howell, who nearly cracked 40 touchdown passes as a true freshman in 2019.

Nobody was worried about Carolina’s passing game heading into this season, and Howell has been better as a sophomore, if a bit more turnover-prone. He’s completing 64.7% of his throws, up from 61.4% as a freshman, while averaging 9.7 yards per attempt, up from 8.6 in his rookie year.

UNC Offense

Heels Yds/Play Yds/Pass Att. Yds/Rush Att
Heels Yds/Play Yds/Pass Att. Yds/Rush Att
2019 6.4 8.6 4.6
2020 7.4 9.7 5.7

The Heels’ tiered-up presence has a lot to do with Howell, but the Tar Heels’ rushing attack has been more explosive this season, and once you add that into the equation it’s headaches all the way down for opposing defenses.

UNC averaged 6.5 runs per game of 10+ yards in 2019; this season, they’re at almost 9.0. In general the Heels are good at creating separation through explosive plays (see what I did there), but having the ground game breaking chunk plays more consistently has been a boon.

This makes standard downs a particular nightmare for opposing defenses, as there are no context clues in the form of down and distance to suggest whether Carolina is leaning run or pass. The Tar Heels are confident that either route of attack can get the job done, and that’s a tough reality because opponents are going to be more inclined to err on making Howell the focal point.

Now, sure, all of that is bad news, but fear not, I got a couple reasons for optimism you can cling to.

For one thing, UNC’s rushing performance against Virginia Tech really skewed its season-long averages; maybe the teeth aren’t as sharp as they seem.

Tar Heels’ Running Game

Opponent Rush Att. Rush Yds. Yds/Att.
Opponent Rush Att. Rush Yds. Yds/Att.
Syracuse 35 160 4.57
BC 39 176 4.51
Virginia Tech 43 399 9.28
FSU 45 184 4.09

North Carolina averaged 4.1 yards per carry against ACC opponents in 2019, and if you remove the VT game from its numbers this season, UNC is averaging 4.4 per carry against league foes. That’s not such a dramatic-looking improvement.

This is a reach, mind, as UNC hasn’t had a poor rushing game yet this season. Nobody’s been able to cripple these guys and make the Tar Heels one-dimensional. And even if you do make Carolina one-dimensional, Howell is still there to serve as a possible trump card. But! But.

Howell threw seven interceptions in 422 pass attempts as a freshman, or one pick for every 60 attempts. This year he’s thrown four picks in 119 attempts, which is one for every 30 attempts. That he’s doubled his interception rate is surprising, though he is compensating elsewhere.

So you see, the task is simple for NC State’s defense:

First, you gotta cut out Carolina’s explosive run plays, make that aspect of the offense a rote, assembly-line affair, to an extent that maybe the Heels’ offensive coordinator gets bored with the whole idea of running the ball even if they’re averaging four yards per carry. I mean, they don’t have to look at a bunch of stupid boring runs, they have Sam Howell! ... is the thinking we should hope they adopt.

Along with that, you have to make sure that Carolina’s explosive plays through the air—the Heels will connect on a couple of big ones as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow—aren’t touchdown plays. Even if you drag down the receiver at the one-yard-line, you cannot surrender the free points.

Finally, you have to hope that Howell will make a mistake or two, and you have to take full advantage if he does. Dropped interceptions are hereby illegal, hereby punishable with an early return to the bus.

I think we can find a workable thing that could happen here.