After another loss and another defensive letdown, Vic Koenning, the beleaguered leader of North Carolina’s beleaguered defense, spent nearly two weeks attempting to restore confidence. Again.
But how to restore confidence when there hasn’t been much to be confident about? How to remind players of the good when, for months, there hasn’t been all that much good?
Entering a pivotal game against Pittsburgh on Saturday – a game that may well decide whether North Carolina becomes eligible to play in a bowl game – the Tar Heels’ defense is on pace to allow more yards per game than any defense in school history.
North Carolina’s defense, which is allowing 510.3 yards per game, is among the most porous in school history – and it would be among the most porous in a lot of schools’ histories. N.C. State has never had a defense that has allowed that many yards per game. Neither has Duke, despite the long stretch of futility that only ended in recent years.
“We are trying everything known to man to build confidence,” said Koenning, the assistant coach most responsible for UNC’s defense. “ To get our guys to be confident in what they’re doing and confident in themselves and confident in everything we’re doing. So that’s been a big part of our preparation for Pitt, is try to do things that they feel like they’d be successful doing.”
Identifying those strengths is difficult. Both against the run and the pass, the Tar Heels have had their share of problems.
They’re allowing 219.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks 110th nationally. Against the pass, North Carolina has been even worse – at least statistically. It is surrendering 290.7 passing yards per game, which ranks 116th nationally.
At times, UNC has had problems tackling, bouncing off ball-carriers like a rubber ball off a wall. At other times, the Tar Heels simply haven’t had anyone in position to make a defensive play – as was the case nearly two weeks ago when Miami’s Duke Johnson ran for a 90-yard touchdown that was the longest rushing touchdown UNC had ever allowed.
That was another record-breaking moment for the Tar Heels’ defense, which has set several records for futility this season. Among them: most yards (789) and points (70) allowed in a game, both in the loss against East Carolina.
Nearing the end of a long season, with the goal of playing in a bowl game still a possibility, there is a pride factor, Tim Scott said. Scott, a senior safety, said he doesn’t pay attention to statistics and where his team ranks but he and his teammates on defense understand misery. They’re sick of the results.
“Like coach is saying and like a lot of people are saying, that’s where you’ve got to earn your scholarship,” Scott said. “You can’t just be here, you know. So if the coaches are telling you to do one thing to help us win, then you’ve got to do it. These last few games are about pride.”
Part of the problem for the Tar Heels’ defense can be attributed to the offense. And, particularly, to the quick pace of play.
When the offense isn’t successful – and at times even when it is – it’s on the field for a short amount of time. Which leaves more time for the defense to be exposed. The greater issue, though, is that the Tar Heels haven’t excelled in one area defensively, and they’ve been poor in a lot of areas.
Now comes another significant challenge in Pitt running back James Conner, a burly running back who leads the ACC in rushing (1,342 yards) and rushing touchdowns (17). He will be running behind an offensive line that includes two players who weigh 335 pounds and another who is 315 pounds.
“They’re big, up front, and then your tight ends are 260, 270,” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said this week. “The fullback’s 270. And Conner’s 250. That’s a lot of meat up there now. Lot of meat. And they’re going to come off the ball and try to mash you.”
Fedora’s defense isn’t all that well-equipped to be mashed. The 4-2-5 defense, which Fedora has employed throughout his head coaching career, is designed to defend teams that spread the field – teams like UNC.
Fedora compared Pitt’s offense to Miami’s, which gained 494 yards and averaged 7.3 yards per play against the Tar Heels. Fedora has hinted that UNC would alter its defensive scheme against Pitt. The Tar Heels are likely to try to add size and bulk up front, but the Tar Heels lack size.
“If this was the style of offense I was going to play every week, then I’d want to be much bigger,” Fedora said. “But nowadays, you don’t have that luxury. Because every team has some type of different challenge offensively, whether it’s spreading you out or the triple option or a big mash you, a power team. So you’ve got to have the happy medium.”
There hasn’t been much happy anything – medium or otherwise – for the Tar Heels’ defense.
UNC is allowing 41.9 points per game, which would be a school record, and the 6.4 yards per play it is giving up trails only the 2003 defense, which allowed 6.6 yards per play, as the most generous in school history.
Koenning, though, has continued to search for positives. Anywhere.
“If a player doesn’t play well or he doesn’t prepare well or he’s not into it, a coach can’t trick him and tell him, hey, that’s all right, you’re good,” Koenning said. “You gain confidence by doing the small things well and then you go to the next level things well and then build on that.”