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The Daily Tar Heel

Big plays eluding Tar Heels

T.J. Yates and the UNC offense has struggled to complete deep passes this season. DTH File/Andrew Dye
T.J. Yates and the UNC offense has struggled to complete deep passes this season. DTH File/Andrew Dye

North Carolina’s 42-12 blowout win against Georgia Southern almost two weeks ago served as a pacifier for most of what ailed its offense.

UNC’s ground game got back on track with four rushing touchdowns, T.J. Yates was efficient in the short passing game and the Tar Heels lit up the scoreboard for 42 points.

But for all that offensive success, North Carolina still couldn’t get going what it did regularly a season ago: complete passes deep down the field.

“I just feel like on those shots where we have guys running downfield, we just have to hit them,” wide receiver Greg Little said.

“We can’t overthrow them, guys can’t drop the ball. We have to capitalize on opportunities.”

Twice against the Eagles, Little was overthrown by Yates. The junior signal-caller also misfired on other opportunities to Dwight Jones and Erik Highsmith.

Yates said those misses were the result of forcing the ball downfield and simply misfiring.

“Sometimes you don’t hit it in the game, and sometimes you do,” Yates said.

That’s not to say UNC hasn’t found any success this season when throwing it long.

Jheranie Boyd reeled in a 59-yarder against East Carolina, and Highsmith nabbed a 40-yard bomb against Georgia Tech.

But the frequency with which these passes have been completed has simply paled in comparison to 2008.

Then, UNC’s offense produced plenty of balls down the field, largely due to Hakeem Nicks’ and Brandon Tate’s playmaking abilities.

Without those two and Brooks Foster, North Carolina’s average yards per reception has dropped from 14.2 last season to 10.3.

The decreased yards per completion allows defenses to stay more concentrated in the box, clogging up space on running plays and underneath passing routes.

“Definitely just kind of practice throwing the ball downfield,” Yates said during UNC’s bye week. “That’s one thing we’re going to have to work on.”

Little said that increased success in completing these types of passes will take a “total team effort.”

The most pivotal role rests with UNC’s offensive line, which needs to provide enough protection for Yates to set his feet and for the receiver to get downfield.

Getting Yates that protection has been easier said than done. Often, Yates is hurried or pressured before he’s ready to throw, forcing him to dump the ball off short. UNC’s linemen have allowed 14 sacks this season.

And while all that blocking is going on, the receiver must get separation from his defender with a great route.

Finally, the quarterback must place the ball where that wideout can make a play on it, and the receiver has to snare it.

Little said he is confident UNC’s big-play offense will re-emerge because he’s already seen what he and fellow offensive teammates can do.

“We’ve done it in practice,” Little said. “We’ve just got to translate it on gameday.”

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