On a third-and-six for quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and Duke’s offense, UNC’s Marvin Austin backpedaled into coverage, identified where Lewis intended to throw and made a diving leap to swat away his pass attempt.
And while the agile play would stand out no matter who was playing defense, Austin’s size and positioning at the snap made it spectacular.
The 305-pound defensive tackle had lined up over center at the beginning of the play before his foray into pass coverage.
“Marvin swears he could be a DB any day. He did do a good job of backpedaling, flipping his hips and knocking the ball down,” safety Deunta Williams said of Austin’s technique. “We’ve got athletic guys down on the D-line.”
In North Carolina’s 19-6 win against the Blue Devils, the Tar Heels used this type of play, called a zone blitz, several times to disrupt the rhythm of the then-No.5 passing game of Duke.
The idea behind a zone blitz is to drop players into coverage whom the offensive pass protection has identified as pass rushers. Then, the defense blitzes a few players the offense thought would be playing pass defense.
The idea is to wreak havoc on an offensive line trying to determine blocking assignments and confuse an opposing quarterback as to where the weaknesses in a pass defense are.
Lewis certainly was confounded. The Blue Devils were limited to just 113 yards passing with the help of the scheme — 212 yards below their season average.
“Sooner or later people are going to throw things at you to counter your attack,” Lewis said.
“They did a great job of scheming that up.”
But Austin was not the only lineman to get in on the action.
Robert Quinn also recorded a pass deflection from the defensive end. He barely got his hand on a ball to force an incompletion on what was about a 10-yard pass.
And while Quinn’s might not have been as pretty as Austin’s, it came at a more pivotal time for North Carolina.
Quinn’s tip stalled a Blue Devil drive on the UNC 35 in the fourth quarter, with the Tar Heels clinging to a three-point lead.
“My first couple years in high school I used to play a little bit of linebacker,” Quinn said of the play. “It reminded of those old days.”
Quinn said UNC’s defense used the zone blitz more in the Duke game than it had in any other game. He hesitated to predict that the defense would use it again, saying that down and distance would be a determining factor.
But defensive line coach John Blake’s silence on when UNC might use it extensively again speaks volumes.
“Can’t tell you,” Blake said. “Got to use it again someday.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.