North Carolina plays at Georgia Tech on Saturday, and if history is any indication, that doesn’t bode well for the Tar Heels’ defense.
In three years under coach Larry Fedora, games against the Yellow Jackets have been among the worst for UNC’s defense.
Of course, the defense is new this season. New scheme. New coordinator in Gene Chizik. New attitude and approach and all of those things. So will the results be new, and different, too? That’s the hope for the Tar Heels. Because if they’re not, it likely will be difficult to win against the Jackets.
Here’s how UNC’s defense has fared against Georgia Tech the past three seasons:
2012: 588 yards allowed (380 rushing) and 7.44 yards per play allowed in a 68-50 loss.
2013: 428 yards allowed (324 rushing) and 5.16 yards per play allowed in a 28-20 loss.
2014: 611 yards allowed (376 rushing) and 8.86 yards per play allowed in a 48-43 win.
So in the past three years against Georgia Tech, UNC lost the game in which its defense played its best and won the game in which its defense played its worst . It doesn’t make too much sense but, then again, these UNC-Georgia Tech matchups in recent years haven’t either.
They’ve often looked more like video-game football than actual football, with both offenses going up and down the field amid a relentless outpouring of touchdowns and points. UNC will be OK if that trend continues for its offense. Its primary concern, though, is whether its rebuilt defense withstands its most difficult test of the season against the Jackets’ triple option offense.
Chizik, UNC’s first-year defensive coordinator who’s been the head coach at Iowa State and Auburn, has prepared teams to go against option offenses. But, he said on Wednesday, “It’s been a while.”
“But I’ve played the Georgia Southerns of the world, back in the day,” he said. “But it’s been a while since I’ve defended this particular offense.”
In some ways Chizik has been preparing for Georgia Tech since before the season began. UNC started the year with the plan of practicing for the Yellow Jackets a couple times during the preseason.
Since the season began, UNC has devoted a period every Sunday to practicing against Georgia Tech’s offense. The idea, Chizik said, is to try to keep the Yellow Jackets’ scheme fresh in the players’ minds.
“We always try to stay fresh just a little bit – just little nuggets here and there that we’ve tried to stay on top of,” Chizik said. “And you can’t prepare for this offense in one day. Or one week. So you also need to have some carryover in two-a-days and things of that nature.”
In years past under Fedora, the Tar Heels didn’t practice that far ahead for Georgia Tech.
The scheme this season is different, too, with UNC using three linebackers instead of two. Jeff Schoettmer, the senior middle linebacker, said earlier this week that his role Saturday will be different than it has been in the past against Georgia Tech.
He’ll be “running the alleys,” he said, which is something a safety would do last season.
Entering the season, the one word Chizik said he wanted to use to define his defense, more than any other, was “physicality.” But this week he’s also focused on two more: “eye discipline.”
That’s more important against Georgia Tech than against some teams given the speed at which the Yellow Jackets operate offensively. It can be easy to lose sight of the ball once it’s snapped and harder, still, to detect how a runner might use blocks, and which direction they might be heading.
“We (have talked) all week about where are your eyes?” Chizik said. “What are you looking at? What are you seeing? What are the keys? Every offense is going to give you an idea of what they’re doing if your eyes are correct.
“So eye discipline is a huge part of this. Again, we’ve been talking through this a long time, about if we’re going to play successfully then it’s going to be about our eyes, placing our eyes in the right spot and being in the right spot.”
While Chizik doesn’t have much – or any – recent experience against the triple option offense, he has the advantage of working with Charlton Warren, UNC’s defensive backs coach who played and coached at Air Force, at team that used the triple option with success during his time there.
Warren has practiced against the offense as a player and has coached against it in practice. He also has experience preparing for the triple offense coached by Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson.
Warren and Air Force played Navy when Johnson was the head coach there. They faced Johnson again after he arrived in Atlanta to coach the Yellow Jackets.
“Coach Warren’s been a great asset, just because he’s been at Air Force,” Chizik said. “He’s not only played against it as a player, he was coaching against it. And when you’re at a service academy you have a great familiarity with it. So he’s been a huge asset for all of us.”