Last Saturday in Charlottesville, North Carolina gave up 212 rushing yards to Virginia, and about half of those were to UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins. Virginia runs a spread system that utilizes misdirection and option reads into his offense to simplify his playbook, while allowing his quarterback to have 2-3 different places to take the ball on each play. Virginia wants to attack teams horizontally, and not just vertically. Against North Carolina, Virginia was continually able to get first downs, and keep the ball away from UNC’s offense. At times North Carolina looked confused by Virginia’s pre-snap motions, as well as their misdirection and run blocking scheme.
Luckily for the Tar Heel faithful, we’ll get to watch what is pretty much a throwback version of the same offense on Saturday when North Carolina plays Georgia Tech. As of October 26th, the Yellow Jackets are the best rushing team in the country, averaging 366.5 rushing yards per game. North Carolina is in the top 100 teams in the country in terms of rush defense, (98th but still counts). The Tar Heels on average give up 188.5 rushing yards per game, but more concerning is that opponents average 4.67 yards a carry against North Carolina.
Georgia Tech and their triple option offense is so out of the norm in today’s college game, that using North Carolina’s rush defense stats to try to predict what will happen Saturday is borderline extrapolation. But there are some tendencies that UNC has shown on defense that will carry over to defending the Yellow Jackets. Defending the triple option comes down to gap responsibility and playing your assignment, something that UNC has flashed but not done consistently. Assignment football, especially against the run, starts with the linebackers. That’s why inside linebacker Cole Holcomb’s play will be the X-Factor for North Carolina against Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson is the only Power 5 head coach that runs the triple option offense. Fortunately for Carolina, since they are in the same division as Georgia Tech, they get to prepare for this offense once a year, so upperclassmen in particular have seen this offense three or four times now on a collegiate level.
That doesn’t make it any easier to stop Georgia Tech’s offense, though. Essentially every school that UNC has played this season runs a spread offense, Pitt and Cal run more of a pro-style offense that incorporate spread concepts. Week to week Carolina has seen different schematic differences — Virginia’s spread offense looks vastly different than Miami’s style of spread for example.
The closest resemblance to the Yellow Jackets offense that North Carolina has seen is actually last week’s opponent Virginia. That’s good news because Carolina just played UVA, but it is also bad news because as previously mentioned it wasn’t exactly an ‘85 Bears defensive performance.
Virginia’s offensive coordinator Robert Anae was the offensive coordinator at BYU when New Orleans Saint’s utility weapon Taysom Hill was the starting quarterback from the Cougars. Anae molded his pro-style offense to an option based spread attack to fit Hill’s skillset, and he brought that same offense to Charlottesville. We saw last week that Virginia uses a lot of pre-snap motions and misdirection to create “eye candy” for the defense, and most of the Cavaliers explosive plays were because Tar Heel linebackers got caught with their eyes following the ball in the backfield instead of sticking with their assignment.
The importance of staying within your assignment on defense becomes extrapolated when playing Georgia Tech. Their offense is designed to exploit and attack missed defensive responsibilities. Georgia Tech starting quarterback TaQuon Marshall got hurt a few weeks ago against Duke, his status is unknown on if he’ll play or not in Chapel Hill. Freshman backup Tobias Harris helped the Yellow Jackets steam roll Virginia Tech last week in his first start. Both quarterbacks are skilled runners who make decisive reads that make Georgia Tech dangerous on every possession.
That’s where Cole Holcomb comes into play for the Tar Heels. Holcomb is most likely going to be responsible for at least one “A gap” (the gap between the center and one of the guards) on every play. So when Georgia Tech runs fullback dive out of the wish bone, Holcomb is going to have fill that gap quick.
In modern college football most offensive systems are designed to create passing lanes for quarterbacks, and each school’s respective run schemes are implemented with that focus. For a Georgia Tech team that averages about ten passes a game, they use the fullback dive to open up their option play with their wing backs as well as their sweep plays. Taking away the fullback dive will take away so much of what the Yellow Jackets want to do offensively, the fullback dive sets up their entire offense.
Watch this play that Georgia Tech ran against Virginia Tech last week (4:40). The previous two plays the Yellow Jackets motion the wings and run sweep pitches, attacking the offense horizontally. The play at 4:40 is a perfect example of how Georgia Tech wants to run the fullback dive, and why it’s so hard for the middle linebacker to stop. (Cole Holcomb will be playing where linebacker #25 on the hash line about 4-5 yards deep is standing for Virginia Tech).
The entire left side of the offensive line cut blocks the backside of the defense. The right guard and tackle let Carolina’s left defensive end go unblocked because he is the player the quarterback is keying to make his option read, (any option play, including RPO’s, have an unblocked defender on purpose that the quarterback uses choose the better option for lack of a better term). So the middle linebacker is getting double teamed by two offensive lineman, not to mention his own defensive lineman are falling in front of him so he can’t fill the hole. That’s what Holcomb is going to be dealing with all night in Chapel Hill.
Carolina’s defensive game plan isn’t going to be as simple as Holcomb stopping the fullback dive on every play. Tech uses the fullback dive to open up plays like the pitch sweeps we saw prior, as well as quarterback option plays and keepers. Just like Tech is going to have two or three options on every play, Holcomb is going to have multiple responsibilities on every snap. His first priority does need to be stopping the fullback dive to keep Georgia Tech in unmanageable down and distances and get the Carolina offense back on the field.
Against Virginia there were a few plays where Holcomb got caught with his eyes in the backfield and got washed out of the play, turning four yard gains into eighteen yard gains. There were also a few plays where he just hesitated to long to fill the hole, a combination of indecisiveness and lack of aggressiveness.
Against the Georgia Tech, a team that relies so much on time of possession and continually getting first downs, disrupting their offense early and keeping them “off-schedule” (not allowing them to get into third and short situations) is how North Carolina is going to win the game. The entire defense is going feel out of position, especially the secondary. When Carolina is on defense watch for Cole Holcomb, how he plays is going to have a big impact in if UNC can get a win.