The spread offense is the big buzzword in college football, but no other team runs the spread quite like head coach Larry Fedora and his North Carolina Tar Heels.
In comparison to the pass-heavy attacks, like those at Marshall or East Carolina, or run-heavy systems, like the ones Cam Newton and Denard Robinson ran, the Tar Heels preach balance.
The Tar Heels utilize a simple single-back spread concept, while running a no-huddle system to introduce variety and get defenses on their heels.
Another twist to the Tar Heels' system is that, despite running spread staples such as the “zone read” or “inverted veer,” they do not rely on a mobile quarterback. Instead, the quarterback is used as a decoy to keep the defense honest, while they stretch the field to get their running backs out in space.
When the offense is run with a talented back, like NFL-draft pick Giovani Bernard, the system can be a smash hit, as Fedora proved in 2012.
The Tar Heels averaged 40.6 points per game last season, while passing for 291 yards per game and rushing for 193 yards per game.
The balance was the key. Most college offenses choose one aspect to excel at predominantly, allowing the defense to load up against it. But defenses crumbled when faced with an attack that both ran and passed the ball well, while also spreading the field and moving at a fast pace.
“They’re very capable of attacking in a lot of different ways,” said defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
As long as there are playmakers on offense, the defense needs to play its roles perfectly to succeed against the Tar Heels. Open field tackling is key for the defense — if the offensive player can make the first guy miss, they will have plenty of room to work with.
Last season, the Hokies struggled in the open field and the Tar Heels took advantage.
“I mean honestly, we didn’t execute, we weren’t doing our responsibilities,” said linebacker Jack Tyler.
Foster emphasized tackling as well.
“We didn’t tackle very well. I don’t think our guys were comfortable enough in their fits on the perimeter — because that’s where all the big plays came out of in the run game,” Foster said.
This season, things have not gone as well for the Tar Heels, who have missed having a playmaker like Bernard at running back.
Despite calling a nearly identical amount of running plays per game as in 2012, the Tar Heels have averaged 93 fewer yards per game in 2013.
The problems in the running game have carried over to the team's passing attack as well. While they are averaging about the same amount of passing yards per game as in 2012 (296), quarterback Bryn Renner has seen his completion percentage drop from 65.4 percent in 2012 to 59.9 percent this year.
Renner has also seen his touchdown to interception ratio drop, from 4.00 in 2012, to 2.33 in 2013.
All of this has added up to the Tar Heels averaging 25.3 points per game, 15 points less than they did in 2012.
That does not mean that the Hokies are taking them lightly, though. The team remembers the difficulties they have had with spread concepts and no-huddle offenses in the past.
“They’ve got talent along the offensive line, everywhere, great skill, they’re good. They put a lot of yards on us a year ago and it’s embarrassing,” said defensive line coach Charley Wiles.
That being said, the Hokies feel more prepared for the Tar Heels this time around.
“I hope going into it, playing the no-huddle teams that we’ve played will help us,” said Foster.
Players agree that last year's shellacking will also provide plenty of motivation.
“It’s extra motivation, we’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing and working hard and trying to play consistently and try to get better,” said defensive lineman Derrick Hopkins.