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The Daily Tar Heel

Football: Offensive line drives late comeback

Ryan Houston rushed seven times for 33 yards — all in the fourth quarter of North Carolina’s comeback win at Connecticut.
Ryan Houston rushed seven times for 33 yards — all in the fourth quarter of North Carolina’s comeback win at Connecticut.

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Negative two.

That number represented North Carolina’s total rushing yardage through three quarters of play against Connecticut.

The meager number certainly wasn’t for lack of trying — the Tar Heels tried just about every running play in their playbook to break through the Huskies’ unrelenting front seven.

“It was one of those things that early on, we weren’t getting onto the guys exactly where we wanted to,” left tackle Kyle Jolly said.

Shaun Draughn tried darting both inside and outside, but repeatedly was stonewalled on rushing attempts, gaining just 17 yards on 13 carries.

Greg Little got a few chances to try to get around the defense on reverses, but UConn’s pursuit limited him to just five yards.

UNC even brought out its Wildcat formation, but A.J. Blue was stuffed at the line for a two-yard gain on a quarterback draw.

Those rushes, coupled with the yardage quarterback T.J. Yates lost when he was sacked six times, brought UNC’s rushing total to below zero.

The Tar Heels were missing two starters on the offensive line, but coach Butch Davis refused to point to first-time starters Greg Elleby and Cam Holland as reasons for his team’s struggles on the ground.

“It’s Connecticut. UConn, period,” Davis said. “It had not much else to do with anything else other than they are a very fundamentally sound and well-coached football team.”

But while Davis and his assistants knew the running game hadn’t paid any dividends through three quarters, they also knew the Huskies’ defensive line was wearing down.

Davis said that the commitment to the running game brought on fatigue among the UConn defensive line, and that was what unlocked Yates’ arm in the game’s final quarter.

“We made them play two-dimensional. It would have been almost impossible to have a 10-point deficit and go out and sling it every single snap,” Davis said. “If we had only thrown passes, we probably would have left this stadium with a loss today.”

As the number of snaps piled up for UNC offensively, Davis inserted Ryan Houston, a power back, to try to take advantage of UConn’s tired defensive front.

Houston, who had registered only one carry before the fourth, said he had been studying from the sideline what the Huskies had been doing against Draughn and had a plan for setting up his blocks.

“I told them before the play, block them for a good 1.5 seconds and then I’m going to get in there and get some yards all day,” Houston said. “I thanked them after every play and said, ‘Let’s go.’”

Houston and his fresh legs rumbled for 32 yards on six carries in the final quarter, putting the Tar Heels’ offense in good situations for second and third downs. Yates took advantage of those opportunities to get the ball downfield to Zack Pianalto and Erik Highsmith, putting UNC in position to tie the score.

Yates wasn’t sacked in the final quarter, and the increased amount of time he had to find receivers led to several third-down conversions.

Particularly impressive to Yates was the way Holland handled his first start under center.

“It was a very loud place in there, we had trouble with the sound and snap count and everything, just adjusting and all that,” Yates said. “The pressure was on him and Greg, making their first career starts. They did an amazing job.”

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