North Carolina’s season has been defined by the big play – what coaches like to call explosive plays – and the Tar Heels’ inability to generate enough of them and their inability, on defense, to stop them.
First, the good for UNC: Saturday during that 50-35 loss at Clemson it created more explosive plays – defined by the coaching staff as runs of at least 12 yards and pass completions of at least 16 yards – than in any other game this season.
The bad for the Tar Heels: They’ve given up 48 such plays this season, 20 more than their offense has generated. Entering a pivotal game against Virginia Tech on Saturday, the fate of UNC’s season could well be decided by whether it can reverse a trend that so far has doomed the Tar Heels.
In the past two weeks, UNC has given up an 84-yard run, a 74-yard pass, a 55-yard pass, a 50-yard pass, 44-yard run and a 43-yard run. All of those plays either ended in touchdowns or set them up.
And all of those plays, it seemed, helped erode the confidence of the Tar Heels’ defense.
“We were so confident going into the game,” senior safety Tim Scott said of Clemson. “And just knowing that the second play of the game they scored on us, a lot of the confidence just went away when it should have just stayed.
“I mean, we still had what – 57 minutes to play.”
Clemson’s first touchdown, which came on a 74-yard pass play, began a familiar cycle for UNC: Allow a long play on defense, fail to counter on offense, allow another long one on defense, fail to counter on offense, allow another long on defense.
The Tar Heels trailed 20-0 by the time their offense embarked on its first successful drive. That was typical, too, in that it was hardly the first time the offense has started slowly.
UNC has made 28 of those explosive plays in four games but only nine came in the first half. Conversely, UNC has given up 24 in first half.
Scott attributed some of the problems to a lack of preparation. He said Clemson’s first touchdown, for instance, came out of a formation UNC hadn’t studied and one that led the Tar Heels to leave half of the field completely uncovered.
Communication has also been a problem, Scott said. He said the defense has overemphasized that this week, with players calling out assignments before the play and talking more than they might normally.
“But at the end of the day, talk is cheap, really,” Scott said. “If the guys don’t really want to play and come out and practice and when the game comes, play hard, then we’re going to get beat every game. I felt like the past couple of games we came out to play at moments, and then all the energy just went away and we were just a boring defense.”
The defense improved in some respects against Clemson. The Tar Heels allowed fewer than 100 yards rushing, and after allowing 19 explosive plays in that 70-41 loss against East Carolina, they allowed eight at Clemson.
The offense, too, showed signs – especially in the second half – that perhaps it could generate more of those kinds of plays. Junior quarterback Marquise Williams threw passes of 41, 67 and 75 yards in the second half.
UNC scored touchdowns on two of those plays – the 41-yarder to T.J. Thorpe and the 75-yarder to Ryan Switzer. Both times, Thorpe and Switzer caught short passes and then broke free. And both times, the touchdowns were the result of the same play call.
In the moments after the loss, those two plays offered UNC hope that the offense had reached something of a turning point.
UNC tracks the offense’s explosive plays. Before every game, the staff sets a goal.
“And we had been under our goal every game this season until we got to Clemson,” offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said this week. “And we exceeded our goal. So we need more of those and that was the positive for us.”
UNC has made 28 explosive plays in four games, but only nine have come in the first half. Eleven of them have come in the second half of games – against ECU and Clemson – they’ve trailed throughout the half, often by a significant margin.
Then there have been all long plays UNC has allowed. In four games the Tar Heels have given up 15 plays of at least 30 yards. Coach Larry Fedora has attributed a lot of the defensive breakdowns to mental mistakes, to problems he has said are correctable.
If they are, improvement could come against Virginia Tech. The Hokies aren’t known for their passing offense but, then again, UNC hasn’t been known to stop any team from doing what it wants in the passing game.
“Seeing in our past how our pass defense wasn’t so good, I wouldn’t be surprised if they came out passing the ball the first couple of drives,” Scott said. “We have a lot to work on with our defense. We stopped the run pretty well last game, but like I said before, if they come out passing with play-action pass deep balls, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.”