No. 5 North Carolina has yet to trail this season thanks, in part, to the fact that it has scored a touchdown on its opening possession in each of its three games. It's not by chance or that the Tar Heels have been set up nicely by a turnover or long return.
UNC coach Mack Brown says it's the scheme and game plan. Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell said it's all about their mentality. Truth is, it's a little bit of both, which is why Howell likes to get the ball and score instead of deferring to the second half when they win the coin toss.
"That's kind of what we talked about right before we go out onto the field, just setting the tone for the game," Howell told reporters on a video call. "And after that, if we score on the first drive, it kind of gives our offense like a sign of confidence knowing that we can go down and put a drive together and score."
Against Syracuse, it was an 11-play, 65-yard drive. Against Boston College, the Heels went 83 yards in 12 plays. And against Virginia Tech, they completed a 75-yard drive also in 11 plays.
There hasn't been a common play-calling thread that would sum up how the Heels have been able to be consistent. What has been common is that they haven't hurt themselves during their opening drives. Out of those 34 total plays, only two have resulted in negative yardage from sacks against the Orange and the Eagles. Another two times, the Heels were called for holding penalties including one that wiped out senior running back Michael Carter's 41-yard run against the Orange.
UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo believes Carolina has scored first because the players have prepared themselves during the week and have the confidence to execute come game day.
"The focus in the locker room is where we want it," Longo told reporters on a video call. "And when all those things are heading in a positive direction, typically, you come out of the blocks and you play well early and we've been able to do that. And so hopefully that continues here."
The Tar Heels (3-0, 3-0 ACC) should certainly be confident going into Saturday's game against Florida State and not just because of their early success. The Seminoles (1-3, 0-3) currently rank last in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing 37.2 points per game.
Longo said the Tar Heels' staff allows players to voice what plays they like best, which has helped lead to their success starting games. Longo said they tend to run those plays early on to establish a tempo.
Howell is 14 of 18 passing on first drives for 181 yards and two touchdowns. Carter and junior running back Javonte Williams have combined to rush 13 times for 96 yards and a touchdown on first possessions. Carolina is 7 for 8 in third down conversions. The Heels didn't get a third-and-20 against Syracuse, but converted a four-and-7 with an 18-yard reception by senior wide receiver Dazz Newsome.
"I always ask our guys for their top 10 plays, a lot of that input from them goes into our little checklists for the opening drive," he said.
The Heels seem to have that checklist down pat, now they have to focus on keeping that same energy throughout the game. Their 56-45 win over VT was the first game they felt the offense stayed in sync for the better part of the game. Against the Orange and Eagles, it was a bit disjointed.
"We do start fast and we do finish fast," Carter told reporters in a video conference. "I think where our point of emphasis that we need to get better on is the second and third quarter."
FSU has been vulnerable, particularly in the second quarter where it has been outscored 52-17. Carolina can take advantage if that trend continues, but Brown has hinted they have to break their habit of easing up after scoring early. To play up to their No. 5 ranking, Howell says that's not something that can continue.
"Last year, we didn't start fast, we finished strong," Howell said. "This year, we start fast, and we kind of tend to slow down a little bit and pick it back up in the fourth quarter. So that's just one way we can get better, just staying consistent throughout all four quarters."
UNC AT FLORIDA STATE
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Florida
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