ORLANDO, FLA. – On paper the Russell Athletic Bowl features two of the most prolific offenses in the nation, but countless injuries and a coaching change could slow down the offensive assaults. When No. 18 Baylor (9-3) takes on No. 10 North Carolina (11-2) they will be without five players who were once starters on offense.
The signal calling will be up to third-string quarterback Chris Johnson, who will start his third game on Tuesday. The Bears’ offense sputtered under the sophomore QB in his last two games, but many analysts would argue that Johnson faced abysmal conditions.
A torrential downpour on a freezing night in Fort Worth led to Baylor’s second loss of the season. That was followed up by a defeat against Texas in Waco after Johnson suffered an early concussion, which forced the Bears to play one dimensional on offense.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Johnson said. “You just have to figure out how to respond. That’s the mark of a championship team.”
While many assumed the break might help Baylor achieve a better bill of health, it has not ended up being the case. Johnson will be under center for the Bears without his starting running back, junior Shock Linwood and Biletnikoff Award winner, junior Corey Coleman.
The absence of Baylor’s premier playmakers begs the question: will the Bears resemble the offense that averaged 604.6 yards and 48 points per game?
According to head coach Art Briles, the Bears are going to do all they can to remain explosive on offense.
“We’re going to try to do what we can tomorrow. We’re concerned about winning the football game. We’ll fight our tails off,” Briles said.
Despite all the injuries, Baylor has a plethora of weapons at its disposal with sophomore receiver KD Cannon (828 yards and six touchdowns) and senior receiver Jay Lee (726 yards and eight touchdowns) leading the aerial attack.
“We have good players, guys that we recruited and I find it inspiring,” Briles said.
With its leading rusher out, Baylor turns to sophomore Johnny Jefferson (701 yards and five touchdowns), junior Devin Chafin (422 yards and eight touchdowns), and freshman Terence Williams (459 yards and one touchdown) to lead the rushing attack.
Briles said the injuries have caused the team to go back and reevaluate how they want to do things offensively.
The Tar Heels are in a stage of transition as well, after offensive coordinator Seth Littrell took the head coaching job at North Texas. Under Littrell, UNC put up 486.9 yards and 40.9 points per game.
But although the play caller will be different, head coach Larry Fedora doesn’t see the absence of Littrell as a problem.
“We’re game-planning the same way we always have as an offensive staff,” Fedora said. “I’ll probably be more involved than I have been, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be making all the calls. I’ve got guys on our staff that can handle it without a problem.”
The presence of senior quarterback Marquise Williams should help ease the pressure of a change at the helm. Williams played exceptionally well as he threw for 2,829 yards and 21 touchdowns, while running for 867 yards and 11 scores. The senior’s production helped secure North Carolina’s first ranked finish to a season since 1997 and gives the Tar Heels a chance to set a program single-season record of 12 wins.
“We changed a lot this year,” Williams said. “We’ve done a lot of great things and it’s been a fun time.”
Adding to Williams’ effectiveness has been the duo of Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer. The pair combined for 80 receptions, 1,379 yards, and 14 touchdowns on the season.
The ground game of the Tar Heels has also been noteworthy. Sophomore running back Elijah Hood consistently gashed run defenses in route to 1,345 yards and 17 touchdowns.
With the talent of Hood and Williams in the backfield, UNC proved nearly unstoppable on offense due to their balanced attack.
After weeks of watching film and studying the opponent, Art Briles knows his team is going to be up against a formidable opponent.
“Coach [Larry] Fedora is a great football coach, great man, We know the quality of the opponent, a very, very good football team,” said Briles
But even with the high praise for the opposition, Briles is confident. Given the national stage of the game and playing a highly-ranked opponent, the head coach said he is excited for the opportunity.
“We’re trying to become an established program. I want those guys in the locker room to earn respect for themselves,” Briles said.