CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina faced a Georgia Tech offense Saturday that aims to wear down opponents with the run. This weekend, the Tar Heels will try to defend the big-play, spread-it-out-attack of East Carolina (1-2).
The two football opponents' strategies seem like polar opposites, but North Carolina (3-1) is emphasizing the same thing as it prepares for Saturday night's trip to Greenville: keep the Pirates' playmakers on the sideline by keeping their own offense on the field.
In their 35-28 loss at Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels were 3 for 8 on third-down conversions. Exacerbating the situation was the fact that on every third down, they had at least 7 yards to gain.
"We've got to sustain drives," interim coach Everett Withers said Monday. "You can't be in third-and-7-plus as much as we were in last week. ... We've got to do a better job of keeping on schedule and getting in third-and-3 or less so we can convert on third down and stay on the field."
During their opening drive, when they scored to go ahead 7-0, quarterback Bryn Renner connected with receiver Dwight Jones on a third-down play for an 11-yard gain. During the fourth quarter, on North Carolina's game-tying drive, Renner found tailback Gio Bernard on third down for 19 yards. When North Carolina was driving at the end, Renner passed to tight end Eric Ebron for a 24-yard gain.
"Obviously, you want to gain as many yards as possible, but first and second down, just taking pride in getting half of 10 years is a big key we're going to work on this week, whatever it takes," said Renner, who was sacked seven times by the Yellow Jackets.
Shortening those third downs could begin with the run game. Although Bernard finished with a career-high 155 yards, the bulk of those came on a few breakaway runs. When North Carolina got in long third-down situations, it was usually because of some combination of a short run and an incomplete pass or sack.
Withers said he's been pleased with Bernard, but he still wants to play senior Ryan Houston and sophomore A.J. Blue more. Finding the right combination out of the backfield could result in a more time-eating attack.
Meanwhile, Renner has vowed to start getting rid of the ball before the defense can bring him down.
"It really shouldn't be that difficult, just because of the amount of reps I've taken the last three years," he said. "So I really need to have that clock in my head."
Anything it takes, he said, to eat up the clock, put points and the board, and keep the Pirates' attack sidelined.
"It's really going to rely on our offense to stay on the field to keep possessions going," Renner said. "It's the same theme; the more time we can control the ball, the better we have a chance to win. And it's going to be huge this week."
INJURY UPDATE: Sophomore defensive back Jabari Price, who began practicing again last week after having hand surgery during the preseason, is day-to-day, Withers said. Starting receiver Erik Highsmith (ankle) is also listed as day-to-day, but Withers hopes to have both available this weekend.
Senior kicker Casey Barth, who missed Saturday's loss because of a groin injury, probably won't play at East Carolina.
"We want to make sure we take care of him, get him back and get him healthy," Withers said.
Senior linebacker Zach Brown, who was limited to special-teams duty against Georgia Tech because of disciplinary reasons, will also play defense again Saturday, Withers said.