On Saturday night, Florida State tore up the North Carolina Tar Heels defense for 432 yards of total offense, of which 241 were gained on the ground. After allowing an average of only 54 yards rushing in the first two games of the season, Carolina has allowed an average of 250 yards on the ground in the past two games.
This weekend, both UNC and NC State will focus on the opposition’s running game. The Tar Heels boast the 11th-best rushing offense in the country, and have a complementary tandem of running backs that continue to have a great season.
While the Wolfpack rank 46th in the nation, there are two factors why the UNC run defense is this week’s X-factor.
First, the opponent’s running game has sustained drives in the past two games. Out of the 25 first downs earned by Virginia Tech, 15 came on the ground. Last Saturday, 11 of 16 Florida State first downs came on the ground. In the past two games, 63 percent of first downs were earned by running the ball.
A thorough film review needs to be conducted to drill down into the exact causes and scenarios, and how these differ on third down. However, it does show at the 30,000 foot view that UNC’s opponents the last two weeks are moving down the field by running the ball.
Last week, the daggers from the FSU offense may have come through the air, but the offense was sustained by Jordan Travis and La’Damian Webb on the ground. The Tar Heels must find a way to force the opposition into throwing for first downs in a majority of situations. As long as the pass defense does not make a serious regression, this is a scenario that has a higher probability of success for the defense.
The next factor is the current situation for the NC State offense. Starting Wolfpack quarterback Devin Leary was injured last week against Duke and is out for several weeks. Although presumptive starter Bailey Hockman has seen action this season, the disappointing results against Virginia Tech landed him on the bench in favor of Leary.
This quarterback situation is different than someone seeing the first action of the season, but Hockman’s confidence is certainly lacking after a mid-game benching four weeks ago. That is where the run defense comes into play. NC State uses two running backs in Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. The duo has gained nearly 700 combined yards on the season with an average gain of five yards per carry.
Besides the recent struggles of the UNC run defense, the Wolfpack may rely on these two backs to get Hockman back up to game speed or as primary offensive weapons if Hockman struggles.
In either circumstance, Carolina run defense must step up their game, or it could be a long afternoon in Chapel Hill.