T.J. Yates and the rest of the North Carolina offense are preparing to face what has been a house of horrors for them during the past three years — a defense led by Al Groh.
Groh, who had been the head coach at Virginia for the past nine years, has completely stifled UNC’s offense in each of their three meetings during the Butch Davis era.
The Cavaliers won all three contests, despite having less-than-spectacular teams. Now deposed as UVa. head coach, Groh has found a home as the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, who the Tar Heels face this weekend.
To hear Yates tell it, it sounds like he still wakes up in a cold sweat about those UVa. games.
“It was pretty much a nightmare all over the place,” Yates said. “We couldn’t pass the ball, couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t protect, turnovers, you know. It was pretty much the perfect storm of horribleness, I guess. It was bad all over. It wasn’t a fun one to remember.”
Groh runs a 3-4 defense, which is different than the more traditional 4-3 defense because there is one fewer defensive lineman.
That lineman is replaced by a linebacker, who is then free to range around the field to make plays.
The key to the scheme is putting more speed on the field in an attempt to put pressure on the quarterback by blitzing from angles that the offensive line may not expect.
“They can show something coming from the right side, then have it come totally from the left,” UNC right guard Alan Pelc said. “It’s one of those defenses that’s kind of unpredictable.”
The defensive linemen also have extra room to maneuver along the line, stunting and shifting in an effort to confound the offensive line.
“They can play head-up, read techniques, they can slant, they can get into different gaps,” UNC coach Butch Davis said.
Part of the effectiveness of the scheme comes from its novelty. In that sense, it is a lot like Georgia Tech’s triple option offense.
“It’s a different scheme than you face every week, week in and week out,” senior tight end Zack Pianalto said. “It’s like their defense is running the triple option. You don’t see it all the time. In practice we go against the 4-3 every day. Ninety percent of the country runs the 4-3. We see a 3-4 maybe once or twice a year.”
Davis’ recent bouts against Groh have been increasingly dismal. In three games, UNC has scored less every single contest, most recently with a 16-3 loss last year in Kenan Stadium.
“You just got to be accurate, definitely,” Yates said. “There’s a lot more guys dropping into coverage. Sometimes there’s different linebacker looks, there are guys just in windows that just aren’t normally there in the normal 4-3 defense.”
The Tar Heels had a bye week last week, giving them the chance to prepare twice as long as they normally would for the unorthodox scheme.
“When you see a 3-4 once a year you have a very limited time to work with it, and that’s why this bye week is so crucial for us,” Pianalto said.
The Tar Heels might have a slight advantage because the Ramblin’ Wreck is still adjusting to the 3-4 scheme of Groh, but Pelc insists that the defense has improved over the first two weeks of the season.
“They were twice as fast as they were the first game, and I expect them to be even faster in this game,” Pelc said.
“We have had our trouble with the defense,” Pianalto said. “As seniors, this is our last chance to get a little bit of redemption. 0-3 is something that’s never good.”
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