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Ground Game Blues

By Matt Osborne
SouthernPigskin.com
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Through two games this season, North Carolina has shown that it still has plenty of room for improvement in the ground game.

After finishing third in the ACC in rushing yards per game last season, it was expected that the North Carolina offense might not be as proficient running the football in 2013.

The Tar Heels lost three offensive linemen – Jonathan Cooper, Travis Bond and Brennan Williams – to the NFL Draft, while running back Gio Bernard was selected in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Such a loss of elite talent would naturally affect any program, but with Larry Fedora’s outstanding reputation as an offensive mind, it was thought that the dip in production that the Tar Heels would incur would not be as drastic as it may have been for other programs.

In his five seasons as a head coach, Fedora’s offenses had finished no worse than third in their respective conference in rushing offense. In each of those seasons, his offense has averaged no worse than 180 yards per game on the ground.

Through two games this season, however, the Tar Heels have shown that they still have plenty of room for improvement in the ground game.

As the Tar Heels are in the midst of their first bye week of the regular season, they currently are averaging a mere 116.5 yards per game on the ground, tied for the 95th-best average in the FBS.

Of course, it would be easy to point to North Carolina’s season opener against South Carolina as an explanation for the underwhelming rushing numbers thus far. Going against a stout Gamecocks defense, the Tar Heels rushed for just 99 yards on 36 carries, giving the offense a 2.8 yards per carry average.

The production didn’t get much better the following week against Middle Tennessee, however, as the Tar Heels carried the football 41 times for just 134 yards. Facing a Middle Tennessee defense which finished second-to-last in the Sun Belt in rushing defense last fall, the Tar Heels managed the same yards per carry average as the Blue Raiders’ first opponent: Western Carolina (3.3).

The Tar Heels’ poor ground production can also not be attributed to a lack of carries. Last season, North Carolina rushed the ball an average of 38.1 times per contest, as the Tar Heels ran for over 193 yards per game. Through two games this season, North Carolina has run the football 38.5 times per game, up slightly from last fall’s average.

Fedora was visibly frustrated with his offense’s lack of ground production following the lackluster performance against Middle Tennessee, saying he and the coaching staff are currently trying to figure out why the rushing attack has been so disappointing.

“Until I sit down and look at that film, it’s hard for me to say. But I’m sure it’s a combination of a lot of things, “Fedora told members of the media.

While the easiest unit to blame would certainly be a relatively inexperienced offensive line, a large part of the problem stems from an offensive backfield which has failed to produce explosive plays. Though the Tar Heels have 77 carries this season, they have had only one carry go for more than 20 yards.

After Bernard spoiled North Carolina fans with his playmaking abilities last fall, this year’s crop of running backs – Romar Morris, A.J Blue and Kris Francis – have yet to show a propensity for making the highlight reel.

It is something which Morris, North Carolina’s current leader in carries and yards, say must improve as the season rolls along.

“We just have to create more big plays — me and A.J. and Khris,” Morris said. “We have to create more big plays — big plays down the field making the second and third level miss.”

No matter how the Tar Heels find their production on the ground, the simple fact of the matter is that they must find some offensive balance immediately.

Miami and Georgia Tech have both been extremely impressive in their early-season wins, and the Tar Heels take on the Yellow Jackets in their next contest. A failure to run the football against Ted Roof’s defense in Atlanta could potentially set North Carolina behind the eight-ball in the Coastal Division.

Fedora gets the benefit of the doubt given his exceptional resume, but the improvement must get here in a hurry in the Tar Heels wish to make an appearance in Charlotte come December.

Matt Osborne - Matt Osborne currently serves as the director of recruiting and lead editor for Southern Pigskin. His work has been published in a number of national publications, including USA Today. Although he loves all levels of football, Matt's number one joy in his life is his relationship with Jesus Christ. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattOsborne200. For media requests, please email Matt at matt@southernpigskin.com.