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Fixing The Running Game

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Don't be surprised with more running back by committee this season.

Inside Carolina's Greg Barnes covers in detail what Butch Davis had to say about the running game on Sunday night.  At present it looks like a mixed bag.

Those performances set the table for an offseason full of hope and hype surrounding North Carolina’s rushing attack, and FCS opponent McNeese State was thought by many observers to be an ideal team to showcase a new group of tailbacks, including Little, Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston.

Why not? After all, the Cowboys finished last season ranked 51st in run defense (153.2 ypg) in their division, and lost the Southland Conference Player of the Year (defensive end Bryan Smith) to the NFL. Also of note was that North Carolina’s offensive line outweighed McNeese State’s defensive line by nearly 50 pounds per man.

But the breakout performance never occurred. Little totaled 40 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown, while Draughn contributed 33 yards on 7 rushing attempts and a score. Fortunately for the running backs, Brandon Tate (106 yards on 3 carries) became the first wide receiver in school history to run past the century mark.

Part of the problem was in making solid blocks at the line of scrimmage. North Carolina had anticipated a variety of stunts and slants to help create penetration for the Cowboys’ smaller defensive linemen, but Davis said that the great angles required for successful point of attack blocking were rarely obtained.

The offensive line and the running backs finally settled down in the fourth quarter, aided by a quickly-tiring Cowboy defense. Draughn first-ever touchdown run came on a 13-yard scamper with 9:02 remaining, and Little’s five-yard score put the game out of reach with 4:20 left to play.

“Draughn gave us a little spark in the running game in the second half,” Davis said. “[Draughn] scoring and then Greg scoring in the second half running the ball – they got a little bit better feel about being patient and not trying to rush things. Following the blocks to kind of set up and give them the opportunity to use good vision to make some good cutbacks, because both of the touchdown runs came on cutbacks when McNeese State was over-pursuing at the point of attack.”

Davis was not willing to assess Little’s performance on Sunday, only saying that the sophomore has things to improve on and to fix along with all of his teammates.

When asked if Little would still get the lion’s share of the carries in twelve days against Rutgers, Davis answered by going in a different direction.

“I really believe that it’s going to take three running backs in almost every game…” Davis said. “We had anticipated getting Shaun in the game earlier, but we never really got into any kind of a rhythm or a flow, because of the nature of the way that it was either feast or famine. We struggled moving the ball, but then all of a sudden, we’d hit a big play.

“I think that Shaun and Ryan Houston and certainly Greg – all three of those guys – are going to need to play. Ideally, you’d love to have guys playing to keep each other fresh so when they go into the game, they’re ready to go.”

Regardless of who lines up in the offensive backfield on Sept. 11 against the Scarlet Knights, UNC’s rushing attack must improve by leaps and bounds, or the lofty preseason prognostications will fall by the wayside.

On one hand, I hate jumping right into panic mode about the season or the team.  However, when you are talking about football and the limited nature of the schedule, seeing the Heels running game looks much as it did last season in the first game against a lower division opponent the concern cannot really be masked.  The 243 yards Greg Little posted versus Georgia Tech and Duke at the end of 2007 was considered evidence that UNC would figure out the running game this season.  Davis, to his credit, made it a focus and even was willing to use this game in an effort to launch the running game.  The problem was the offensive line and Little in particular did not play well.  Davis has been clear that the blame lies with his staff as well as the entire offensive unit save the QB and receivers. The offensive line, despite being bigger and stronger, did not do it's job and Little did not have much to work which exasperated the fact the sophomore did not run the ball that well to begin with. Shaun Draughn was a bright spot but probably due more to a tiring McNeese State defense rather than general improvement on UNC's side.

The question is what does this all mean going forward, especially with a huge game at Rutgers in two weeks?  Barnes makes a valid point that the emergence of a running game is the foundation of the media hype surrounding these Heels.  I also think, where the O line is concerned you are talking about larger issues than simply the running game if they continue to show an inability to control the line of scrimmage.  Bad blocking affects the passing game as well, unless of course this group is simply having trouble blocking to open up running room but are fine when it comes to straight protection.  Two sacks given up to a smaller but quicker team might indicate otherwise on that point.

Perhaps the more intriguing aspect of Davis' remarks is the fact he is apparently willing to toss three running backs out there instead of focusing on one, which is how things were done last season.  Obviously it is better to have one guy doing most of the work complimented by a couple of other backs but when that one guys is not effective other options must be considered.  The nature of the football schedule does not permit for giving someone time to grow into the job.  UNC needs a running game now.  My read of Davis' remarks between the lines tell me that while the O line did a fairly miserable job of blocking for the run, there is some concern about Little since he has "things to improve on."  Granted Davis lumped Little in with his teammates but the unwillingness to commit to LIttle for a bulk of the carries versus Rutgers screams to me that either Davis is not willing put all his eggs in Little's basket until Little proves he is the answer.

Hopefully, this was the one bad game brought on my nerves and a young team still finding it's way.  10 days from now on a field in New Jersey will likely tell us whether that is the case or if Yates can look forward to nasty pass coverages all season long.