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November 1, 2009

UNC running game getting in gear

North Carolina had two of the more dreadful rushing performances in recent memory in its back-to-back losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia earlier this season---17 net rushing yards against the Yellow Jackets and 39 net rushing yards against the Cavaliers.

Given those atrocious numbers, it's little surprise that the Tar Heels went on to lose both of those games.

Fast forward a month however, and suddenly the Tar Heels are finding tremendous success on the ground, and the results are predictably good for the UNC offense.

After rushing for 164 net yards in its 42-12 blowout over Georgia Southern, Carolina pounded it out against Florida State on the ground, churning out 260 total rushing yards and a net rushing total of 238 yards on its way to scoring 27 points and giving the Tar Heels a bona fide opportunity to win that particular game.

"Rushing for 260 yards in the course of the ball game, we felt like that was a very positive thing," said UNC head coach Butch Davis about the Florida State game.

The Tar Heels were at it again this past Thursday night in Blacksburg, as UNC utilized a powerful inside rushing attack early on and complimented it with some key outside runs later in the game on the way to a net total of 181 rushing yards against the Hokies.

"Against Virginia Tech, there's not really anything that you sit there at the start of the week and you say, 'Well golly. I know we're going to be able to do this, this, and this,'" said Davis after that game. "It is chip away here, chip away here, chip away here, try to find a crease here, try to find a crack, try to make a play here."

"One of the guys that I thought had a monster game (against the Hokies) was Greg Little," Davis added. "I thought he showed up big, not only on the catches that he made down the field but some of the runs he made on the perimeter. They (Virginia Tech) took the perimeter away, and he ran tough inside and what could have conceivably turned into maybe a second-and-11 or a third down and 9, 10, or 11, and he would make six yards by cutting back up inside."

Little finished the game with 38 net rushing yards on six carries---including a 23-yarder late in the first half to help set up Carolina's first touchdown---while adding 58 receiving yards on four receptions and a 19-yard touchdown in the second half.

"We just executed our game plan, the game plan we've had and worked on throughout the offseason and earlier this season," said Little. "I think we executed it to the best of our ability, and we just played well."

"I know that's not the best we can play, but it just feels good to get a win on an opponent that we haven't gotten a win on since they came to the ACC," Little added.

Little's efforts on the ground in the win over Virginia Tech was an extension of his solid play running the ball in the Florida State game, where he took four carries for 48 yards, including a 27-yarder and a five-yard touchdown.

"He (Little) has showed some flashes of the tailback syndrome of being there last year," said Coach Davis. "Contact and being physical is something that he does well, and we were very fortunate."

"I think it's a confidence boost for the offense (to get the running game going)," said junior tailback Shaun Draughn, who had 79 yards on 12 carries against Virginia Tech, including a career-high 44-yarder on an end-around down the right sideline in the third quarter.

"It felt good (to break off the long run). The first time we ran it (earlier in the game) I think I was too fast and I got out in front of the puller, but (the second time) I was patient and when it opened up like that I think my eyes got big and I hit that thing. It definitely felt good," Draughn said.

With four games remaining in the regular season, Draughn is currently sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 481 rushing yards.

While Draughn would have to average approximately 130 yards per game over the final four regular season contests---or slightly over 100 rushing yards over five games if Carolina reaches a bowl---he still has a fighting chance of becoming the first Tar Heel running back since 1997 to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing plateau, the longest such drought at UNC in over 40 years.

Draughn's big play against Virginia Tech was set up in so many ways by the bruising rushing of fellow junior Ryan Houston, who pounded out several important carries up the middle over the course of the game.

"Virginia Tech has got a great D-line and great linebackers and they flow real hard, so East-to-West really won't work on them, so we kind of ran 'dive' plays," said Houston. "Even if there's a little seam you've got to hit it, because if you don't you're going to get the linemen rushing towards you. The D-end is going to wrap around and get you. You've just got to hit it straight ahead."

Houston's carries, which included multiple crowd-silencing short-yardage and third down conversions, softened up the Hokies front seven and forced them to concede some of the outside corridor to protect between the hashes, which Carolina definitely exploited through Little and Draughn.

"On third-and-short, I kind of look at the defense and try to find (a place where), 'All right, I know for a fact I'm going to run at him, or this hole," Houston said. "I can read defenses good, especially short-yardage defense, from watching film, so I kind of know what's going on."

"I heard the (Virginia Tech) crowd hyped, but I knew as soon as I got past that (first down) line they were just going to be quiet," Houston added.

Houston and Draughn's production not only helped move the chains, but it also helped the Tar Heels dominate time of possession against the Hokies---a critical factor in the team's spectacular triumph.

In all, UNC had possession for 36 minutes and 14 seconds Thursday night---a full 12 and a half minutes longer than Virginia Tech.

"We know we can run the ball. We know we can run the ball against just about anybody," said junior quarterback T.J. Yates. "Virginia Tech has one of the best defenses around and I felt we did a great job controlling the clock, running the ball, keeping our defense off the field, so when (the UNC defense) went back on the field they could cause turnovers and play at the best of their ability."

"It felt good. I feel like we kind of found ourselves on offense," said Houston. "I felt like we put together good offensive drives. As an offense we're more explosive (than earlier in the season). We're more completion-driven and cohesive. We're tighter together than the beginning of the season."

"At the beginning of the season we would run three-and-outs like four times in a row before we'd start getting going. I feel like we're starting to go faster, and we're all putting it together," Houston added. "This is a big win on the road. I feel like it's going to help us out tremendously going into next week, and we're just going to try to put together a game plan (for Duke)."

One factor that is playing a big role in Carolina's sudden ground explosion is the fact that for pretty much the first time all season, the Tar Heels have the starting rotation along the offensive line that they were expecting to have during training camp.

The return of center Lowell Dyer, along with the daily improvements in the health of other previously-injured linemen such as Jonathan Cooper and Kyle Jolly, proved to be huge assets in the win over Virginia Tech.

The team desperately needs those guys to stay healthy over the next month so the unit doesn't regress again like it did in late September and early October.

"When you're playing a team like (Virginia Tech) it (having a healthy offensive line) is obviously a big part of it," said Davis. "We missed that consistency and continuity of having the best available players all season long."

"It was still a little bit of patchwork---Lowell Dyer was in and out and Cam Holland did a good job of coming back in---but it was good to get all those guys back together as a unit and hopefully they'll stay healthy and we'll gain some momentum in that position group throughout the rest of the season," Davis continued.

"Lowell and Cam switched in the game a little bit at times, and they did a great job handling the noise and handling the snap counts and everything," said Yates.

For obvious reasons, the ability to run the football makes things so much easier for everyone involved on an offensive unit.

Not only does it help keep the defense fresher and off the field for longer stretches, it allows more options for the ones calling the plays.

"I think you saw (in the FSU and Virginia Tech games) ideally kind of what you would like to see from us all of time---being able to be very balanced," said Coach Davis. "We had big plays in the passing game. We had a good running game. The running game enhances your play-action passing game, so all of it pretty much works hand-in-hand if you're able to mix it up like that and be balanced."

If the Tar Heels can continue finding success on the ground in its upcoming contests, there's no reason the team can't find itself in position to win games in the fourth quarter each and every Saturday down the home stretch.





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