Improved defense leads UNC turnaround

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 3, 2013 

— For more than a month, amid mistakes that cost his team touchdowns and victories, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora insisted the Tar Heels would play better – that they could, and would, turn their season around.

At last, it seems North Carolina is doing just that. The Tar Heels, who left N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday with a 27-19 victory against the Wolfpack, have their first winning streak of the season. With winnable games ahead, and its most difficult games in the past, North Carolina has hope of becoming bowl eligible.

Some of the Tar Heels’ turnaround can be credited to the obvious. The second half of their schedule is significantly easier, at least on paper, than the first half, which included road games at South Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, as well as a home game against Miami.

Yet an easier schedule during November is but one reason for North Carolina’s optimism. The Tar Heels are simply playing better, regardless of the competition, and are committing fewer of the mistakes that led to defeats in September and October.

Fedora noted after the victorySaturday that his team still has a long way to go.

“We created a lot of adversity for ourselves throughout the game,” he said, mostly referring to the eight penalties the Tar Heels committed. “I thought our defense did an outstanding job making them kick field goals throughout the day, and kept us in this game all the way through.”

That, more than anything, has perhaps been the most noticeable change. Two weeks ago, North Carolina’s defense was among the worst in the nation – and it was the worst in the ACC. The Tar Heels earlier this season had a knack for making even average offenses look good.

In North Carolina’s past two games, though, defense has been a strength instead of a liability. For the first time this season, the Tar Heels have surrendered fewer than 400 yards of offense in consecutive games.

Neither Boston College, which lost to UNC two weeks ago, nor N.C. State are known for their potent offenses. Both the Eagles and the Wolfpack are among the worst offensive teams in the nation in various statistical categories.

Still, the Tar Heels have been bad enough defensively at times to make even the most ineffective offenses appear competent. But not in the past two weeks. Fedora cited the elimination of big plays – N.C. State didn’t generate any – as North Carolina’s most significant defensive improvement.

Kareem Martin, North Carolina’s senior defensive end, said he and his teammates are communicating better on the field. Off of it, he said, they are benefitting from a more scaled-down version of the playbook.

“This is great,” he said after the Tar Heels held the Wolfpack without a touchdown after their first possession. “To be able to hold a team to so many field goals, you know, when they had good field position at times, and bending, not breaking – it’s just a tremendous accomplishment going forward.” Martin added the confidence of the defense was at “an all-time high.”

Offensively, North Carolina has benefited from its two-quarterback system in which Marquise Williams, a third-year sophomore quarterback, has emerged to become a difference-maker. Williams has led the Tar Heels in rushing in each of the past two games, and his mobility adds a dimension to the offense that was missing when Bryn Renner, the senior, had the offense to himself.

Renner is still the starter, and plays the majority of snaps. The rotation featuring Williams, though, seemingly has kept defenses off balance.

“We ran a little bit more quarterback runs there, obviously when he’s in the game,” Fedora said of Williams, who led North Carolina on its first touchdown drive on Saturday. “And he did a nice job at that. He threw the ball well. And once we started moving the chains a little bit, then you can get your tempo going.”

In recent weeks, Fedora and his staff have also made Eric Ebron, the junior tight end, more of a priority. Twenty-one of Ebron’s 44 catches this season have come in North Carolina’s past three games. He caught a season-high nine passes on Saturday for 70 yards – a solid performance given he entered Carter-Finley Stadium wearing a bulls eye.

Earlier in the week, Ebron had drawn the ire of N.C. State fans and players for his dismissive comments about the Wolfpack. He was likely among the most satisfied of his teammates after UNC’s first victory at Carter-Finley since 2005.

“My freshman year, we came here, we were shut out,” Ebron said. “And that feeling, that taste that was in your mouth for two years (and) just sat there. And we came back, and we were relentless. … We were relentless, and we kept coming at them, and kept coming at them.”

And now, amid the Tar Heels’ first winning streak of the season, a turnaround doesn’t merely seem possible. It appears it could be likely, too.

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