North Carolina

UNC defense searching for stops, confidence at midway point

Clemson's Artavis Scott (2) works his way to the end zone with a 33-yard touchdown reception past North Carolina's Sam Smiley at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Clemson won, 50-35.
Clemson's Artavis Scott (2) works his way to the end zone with a 33-yard touchdown reception past North Carolina's Sam Smiley at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Clemson won, 50-35.

The Sunday film sessions have become more pleasant these days, more enjoyable, if only slightly. At least there are some positives now, every and now and then, when there were hardly any at times earlier this season for the defense at North Carolina.

The Tar Heels have allowed at least 50 points in three of the past four games – all defeats – yet, somehow, there is still some optimism that a second-half turnaround, the kind that happened a season ago, might be possible.

“Every Sunday coach Vic makes a clip – makes a video of our bad plays and he makes a video of our good plays,” Tim Scott, UNC's senior safety, said after practice on Wednesday. “And throughout these last couple of weeks, you've been seeing a trend.

“And there's a lot more good plays in those videos that he's showing us than the bad plays.”

It's a start. UNC has reached the midway point of the season with what is, statistically, one of the worst defenses in the nation.

The Tar Heels are allowing 508 yards per game, which ranks 117th nationally, and they're 105th nationally in yards per play allowed (6.18). UNC has been exploited by long plays, like it was in losses against East Carolina and Clemson, and it has been ground up by long drives, as it was against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.

And now comes an entirely different challenge against Georgia Tech and its option offense. A season ago, UNC's second-half turnaround began at this point, in the team's seventh game, and it began with its best defensive performance of the season in a 34-10 victory against Boston College.

If the Tar Heels are to have any hope of reversing course again, of turning their 2-4 start into a .500 finish – or better – their defense must rise from the doldrums and execute a 180. Easier said than done, given the recent history for this group, and its struggles in everything from tackling to confidence.

Vic Koenning, UNC's defensive coordinator, described on Wednesday a dire mood. He described a sense of desperation.

“We need to turn it around,” Koenning said. “We need to win. It's bad around here. I mean, everybody is on everybody. The mood around here, it's not – I'm not saying that it's nothing that we can't overcome, or this, but I'm saying it's bad in the way that we need to get a win.

“We have got to find some positives.”

Even UNC's two victories against Liberty and San Diego State, Koenning, left the Tar Heels feeling more empty than fulfilled.

“So we haven't had a real good positive feeling about ourselves in a long, long, long time,” Koenning said. “So it's hard to keep feeling that way about your job, or about a relationship or about anything else.

“You've got to have some positives somewhere along the line, and we've got to create those positives.”

One positive for the UNC defense: It has surrendered fewer long scoring plays in recent weeks.

The Tar Heels gave up a slew of those against ECU and Clemson, but Virginia Tech didn't score a touchdown on any explosive play – defined by UNC's coaching staff as a 12-yard run or a 16-yard pass – and Notre Dame scored but one of its touchdowns on Saturday with such a play.

There have been fewer breakdowns in the secondary, better communication and Fedora said last week that the defensive line had come the furthest of any position group on the team. Still, a new problem has plagued UNC in recent weeks: Its inability to get off the field and stop long drives.

That's what's likely to challenge the Tar Heels most on Saturday against Georgia Tech's methodical option offense.

“The thing that Georgia Tech does, is they do a tremendous job of possessing the ball,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said earlier this week. “They stay ahead of the chains, so they're not in long-yardage situations on third down. And so they can still get to their entire offense, which is the triple-option.

“Offensively, you go from averaging probably 14 to 15 possessions in a game to nine, maybe 10.”

A season ago against Georgia Tech, Fedora said, UNC had 10 possessions. One of those included taking over possession with 24 seconds left before the end of a half.

UNC's inability to stop long drives has led to some fatigue problems, Koenning said. It's a problem that's exasperated, too, when the Tar Heels' offense is maintaining possessions of its own.

Among teams that have played six games, only three defenses in the country have defended more plays than the Tar Heels.

“We’ve had a lot of games in the 90s,” Koenning said. “Then you're not three deep, then you’ve got guys that are playing an excessive number of plays.”

Big plays doomed UNC earlier this season and, in the past two weeks, the defense has suffered more slowly. There have been some signs, though, however small, that a second-half turnaround, like the one that happened a season ago, is feasible.

What happens on Saturday, albeit against an unorthodox offense, could show just how likely such a reversal might be.