Improved run game fuels Tar Heel football renaissance

Nov. 15, 2013 @ 03:43 PM

The biggest difference between North Carolina’s record-setting offense last year and its middle-of-the-pack offense this year has been the running game.

The Tar Heels averaged 193.8 yards a game on the ground last season when it set school records for points and yards, but they are only averaging 118.7 yards this season, which ranks 109th in the FBS.

Still, UNC (4-5, 3-3 ACC) is running the ball better than it has all season heading into today’s game against Pittsburgh (5-4, 2-3) at Heinz Field (12:30 p.m., WRAL). UNC’s two best rushing games of the year have come in the last two weeks — 152 yards at N.C. State and 204 against Virginia.

Even the trick play that the Tar Heels ran so effectively against the Cavaliers — a reverse pass from wide receiver Quinshad Davis to quarterback Marquise Williams, who was wide open for a 29-yard touchdown — was called because of the confidence in the running game.

“The thing that matters the most is that we’re running the ball more effectively,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “When you do that, now everything starts clicking a little bit better because you can start getting into your tempo and you can start moving the chains and you can call your double passes and things that you know that if they are incomplete or we don’t complete the play, we’re not going to be behind the chains because we’ll find a way to pick up the first down.”

The running game’s improvement is partly because of true freshman T.J. Logan, who missed the first four games with a knee injury and is averaging 4.5 yards a carry in limited time. But the biggest difference has been mobile quarterback Marquise Williams, who saw his role increase midway through the season and is now the full-time starter after senior Bryn Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

Williams has led the team in rushing in three of the last five games, and has had two of the team’s four rushing touchdowns during that span.

“We want a dual threat guy,” offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. “We’ve made it work without him — there were games when we went up and down the field with Bryn as a pocket guy. So not that you can’t do it, but it is more natural with us to have a dual-threat guy. It’s what we try to recruit.

“It’s not an excuse for the offense not to work, but it does free up some things. It’s a lot more of a challenge for the defense to deal with that, and it definitely makes you more balanced.”

NOTES — The last time UNC played in Pittsburgh was in 2000. The teams met most recently in the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl, with the Panthers winning 19-17. … Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald leads the nation in tackles for loss (2.2 per game) and is seventh in sacks (1.0). … The Tar Heels faced Panthers senior QB Tom Savage when he was a sophomore at Rutgers. Savage went 16 of 29 for 150 yards with two interceptions in UNC’s 17-13 win. … The Tar Heels are attempting to win consecutive road games for the first time since 2010. … After wearing No. 2 last week to honor Renner, Williams will go back to wearing No. 12.