UNC hurt by lack of red-zone touchdowns

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 24, 2013 

— In the days following North Carolina’s 27-23 defeat against Miami last week, the Tar Heels’ offensive players and coaches met and watched film, like they normally do. And, like they’ve often done in this long season, they lamented their failure to score touchdowns in the red zone.

Five times the Tar Heels reached the Miami 20-yard line. Only one drive ended with a touchdown.

“It makes you sick,” sophomore receiver Quinshad Davis said earlier this week. “You had that many opportunities to put the game away, and we didn’t.”

Had UNC scored just one more touchdown on its other four chances, the Tar Heels likely would have defeated the Hurricanes, who were then ranked 10th nationally. As it was, though, the lack of success in the red zone – UNC settled for three short Thomas Moore field goals – allowed Miami to win the game with a 90-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes.

Davis was part of the Tar Heels’ most successful red-zone play. He caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Bryn Renner early in the second quarter for a 14-13 lead.

Outside of that, the Tar Heels gained negative-4 yards on their other 10 plays inside the Miami 20. That includes a 15-yard illegal block penalty that, technically, didn’t count as a play because of the infraction.

UNC’s red-zone problems aren’t limited to last Thursday. The Tar Heels have scored touchdowns on 52.6 percent of their trips inside their opponents 20, which ranks 97th nationally.

“If we could pinpoint just one thing, we could get that one thing corrected and it would be (easier),” Larry Fedora, UNC’s second-year coach, said earlier this week. “But no, it’s a breakdown here, it’s a breakdown there. It’s a combination of a lot of things.

“It’s just that we don’t have that where everybody’s clicking on the same page yet.”

The Tar Heels have been most hindered by the lack of a productive running game. UNC hasn’t run effectively all season, and yards have been especially difficult to come by approaching the opponent’s goal line.

The design of UNC’s spread offense has created additional challenges, Davis said. The spread is built to create vertical seams in a defense, but it’s more difficult to create those seams when the field shrinks, deep in opposing territory.

“We’ve got a lot more space to work (on our end of the field),” Davis said. “You’ve got a lot more room to beat your guy. When you get into the red zone, it’s like packed, and it’s a lot tougher to get open in (those) little-bitty spaces.”

UNC might find it difficult Saturday to turn around its red-zone fortunes against Boston College, which brings one of the best red-zone defenses in the nation to Chapel Hill. The Eagles have allowed their opponents to score touchdowns on 47.4 percent of their red-zone drives, which ranks tied for 19th nationally.

The Tar Heels do, at least, possess a rare kind of red-zone weapon in tight end Eric Ebron, who has made a habit of making the spectacular catch this season. The 6-foot-4 Ebron scored against Miami on a 71-yard touchdown, but he didn’t play a prominent role when UNC drove inside the Hurricanes’ 20.

Offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said earlier this week that the Tar Heels have done a better job this season than last year at scoring in the red zone. And indeed, UNC ranks 21st nationally in overall red-zone scoring. But on red-zone drives, only 10 teams in the country have settled for field goals more often.

“We’ve gotten points more down there than we did this time last year,” Anderson said. “But we’re not scoring enough touchdowns, and we’ve got to finish in the end zone.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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