Before we decide that the Tar Heels’ 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech was the worst football defense we have ever seen, let’s take time to consider the game played last Friday night by UNC quarterback prospect Will Grier in a North Carolina high school playoff game.
Grier passed for ten touchdowns for a national high school record 837 yards breaking the all-time North Carolina high school scoring record for total points in a game set in the 1940s. His team Davidson Day won 104-80.
At least the Heels did not lose by 24. And there was hope this time around that UNC would come down on the right side of Georgia Tech for a change.
While UNC’s last two football coaches had managed to put together seasons with promise, their average point differential was only 3.4. Larry Fedora entered last Saturday’s game with Georgia Tech with an enviable point differential over 15. Surely, if Tar Heel fans were to be blessed with a win against Georgia Tech, this game was the one.
But the really important statistic is that the Tar Heels were only 56th in the country in total still needed a lot of work on defense. And when they finally found time to count the score Saturday, the teams had scored 118 points, comfortably eclipsing the previous ACC conference game mark of 106 in a game won by Clemson over Wake Forest 82-24.
Never before during its 60 year history had an ACC team scored 50 points and lost. Of course, once Georgia Tech was ahead 58-50, that record was bound to be broken just as the 108 points were already enough to eclipse the ACC conference game record.
What a game! A game only a fan could love, as the coaches worked the sidelines in increasing frustration from the decision of UNC’s punter to try for a first down at UNC’s 27 to the last play of the game.
This is football? Sure looked like basketball. The scores were coming almost as frequently.
And once again, the UNC Tar Heels had lost to Paul Johnson’s “triple option” because they could not defend this ancient offense, giving up more points at home than any time in history.
Why do the Tar Heels lose so often to Georgia Tech? And why are we forced to once watch nearly unstoppable runners and receivers seemingly squirting from a porous defense at all angles, dropping linemen and defensive backs in their wake? For that matter, why does Paul Johnson fail at other schools but win against North Carolina?
To find out, history is useful.
In 1963, there were three competitive service academies. Roger Staubach had his Navy team ranked second in the country, had beaten powerhouse Notre Dame, and was due for a Heisman Trophy. And Air Force was not far behind. Its biggest win was the only loss suffered by Bob Devaney’s eventual top ten Nebraska. And Air Force had lost to Army, another good team that had beaten Penn State.
Staubach was the college football news leader for the entire nation. But Air Force was more captivating. It employed what it terms the “shotgun” offense, from which a punishing running attack was available and passing became a more viable option because of the emphasis on defending the run.
Excellent dual threat quarterbacks generally flourish with the “shotgun.” However, they often do not have options unless they use the single or double wing, a formation Sammy Baugh says he played at TCU in the mid-1930s.
The key to all these formations and what makes Georgia Tech seem unstoppable at times is the ability of the quarterback to read defenses and decide who will have the ball. While many are called plays, the options provide the quarterback with the opportunity to decide where the ball goes at the point of attack. The quarterback is the most critical element of the play from a cerebral standpoint. And with quickness in the backfield, games are usually extremely competitive even when playing with lesser talent.
Paul Johnson has had teams in bowl games each of the last four years and appears likely to be in his fifth at the end of this season. In 2008 and 2009, his teams were ranked nationally. And in many ways, considered a maverick or weird by some and never having played college football, Johnson has managed to put together offenses that rival most in ACC history because of his option offense.
In the first half, UNC escaped with a two point conversion and a one point lead, 29-28. There was no escaping the future of this game. If a team was to win, it was likely to need to score on every possession and avoid turnovers.
The first half of the 1963 Gator Bowl was far different. Up 20-0 at the half, the game was over. UNC matched Air Force’s speed up front, and the option was effectively stopped before it got going. And its secondary eventually stifled Air Force’s talented quarterback with five interceptions when trying to come back from behind.
This year, UNC simply does not have the team speed or sufficiently talented secondary.
In fact, Georgia Tech’s largest losses this year, by 21 to Middle Tennessee State and by 24 to Brigham Young, were to teams with great team speed and talented secondaries.
A few years ago, the University of Oregon stopped trying to recruit huge players and focused exclusively on speed. The results are self-evident. When you cannot catch a player because of quickness, size does not matter.
Larry Fedora is at a crossroads in his recruiting. His own players are coming in, and the teams he creates will have to consider options available to him and the direction in which both offenses and defenses are going.
Catching up is far harder than stopping an offense to begin with. And speed wins these days. Just ask Alabama.