After sluggish start, UNC defense “bows up” in victory against N.C. State

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 2, 2013 

— Tim Scott, the North Carolina junior cornerback, didn’t like what he sensed on N.C. State’s first possession here at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday, and Scott didn’t much care for how effectively the Wolfpack moved on their second drive, either.

By the end of those first two drives, N.C. State held a 10-point lead, and UNC’s defense, which had shown so much improvement last week during a victory against Boston College, appeared to be regressing. Then Scott and his teammates gathered on the sideline midway through the first quarter, he said.

“We weren’t really filling our gaps correctly (early on),” Scott said after UNC’s 27-19 victory. “So when we got to the sideline, we told each other we had to play with more energy in order for us to win the game.”

The Tar Heels had told themselves similar things at other points this season, and then failed to act on their desire. This time, though, they did. They executed. They played with more energy. Perhaps most important, UNC’s defense played with more precision, limited its mistakes, and held N.C. State without a touchdown after its first possession.

The performance of the Tar Heels’ defense has at times infuriated UNC’s coaching staff. At times, Vic Koenning, the assistant coach most responsible for leading the defense, has been left nearly speechless by its poor play. Now, though, has come a resurgence of sorts for beleaguered group of players who haven’t experienced much success.

“We haven’t given up the big play, you know – the big touchdown play,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said after he became the fourth coach in school history to win his first two games against the Wolfpack. “The long ones. Early in the season, we gave up too many of those, and it hurt us.

“But we were playing solid (earlier in the season) all the way through other than a few big plays. … And I think we’ve gotten better at stopping those explosive plays.”

That might be the most noticeable change for UNC’s defense during the past two weeks in victories against N.C. State and Boston College. N.C. State scored its lone touchdown on Saturday after a turnover provided a short field and, after that, UNC allowed nothing but field goals.

The Tar Heels’ defense on Saturday thrived especially inside its own 20-yard line, with the pressure at its greatest. The Wolfpack ended two of their three red-zone drives with field goals. On its other two scoring drives, N.C. State didn’t even make it inside UNC’s 20.

“Bend but don’t break,” said Kareem Martin, the UNC’s senior defensive end. “That’s one of the things you’ve got to be as a defense. You’ve got to realize the other team, they’re going to make plays. They’re on scholarship just like we are – they’re Division I athletes. So you can’t expect to keep them from not getting yards.

“But when it’s time, when you’re in the red zone, you’ve got to bow up and make them kick field goals.”

The Tar Heels’ defense has bended plenty this season, and often broke. Not on Saturday, though. And not last week, either, against Boston College.

UNC held the Eagles to 261 yards last week – and just 4.4 yards per play. On Saturday, the Tar Heels allowed 388 yards, but just 251 after the first quarter. N.C. State scored but a lone field goal on its final 11 possessions.

Martin, who on Saturday finished with eight tackles, one sack and three tackles-for-loss, credits the improvement to a change in game-planning and preparation.

“Coach Vic, he’s definitely scaled down the game plans going forward,” Martin said. “The game plans, it’s enough where we can be versatile but small enough where guys can learn everything, every set and everything that goes into the defense. So I think that’s why we were able to be so successful.”

UNC had just one sack, but its secondary broke up eight N.C. State passes and intercepted two of them. After the final seconds ran off the clock at Carter-Finley, Scott was among some UNC players who ran straight toward the middle of the field and began celebrating on N.C. State’s midfield logo, which, on Saturday, was an outline of the state with a Wolfpack logo on the inside.

Scott later said that “it wasn’t very acceptable” to celebrate on the logo, and he described it as “not real classy.” Even so he and his teammates became caught up in the moment. In a season of disappointment for UNC’s defense, there was something worth celebrating again.

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

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