This is something new for North Carolina – relatively new, at least, after what happened the past two seasons – and now the Tar Heels’ goal is to build on their winning streak, and to extend it, five games into a season that’s approaching its midpoint.
At this point two years ago UNC had lost three consecutive games on its way to a 1-4 start. At this point last year UNC had lost three consecutive games, again, on its way to a 2-3 start.
And now? Now the Tar Heels have won four consecutive games, including a 38-31 victory at Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels left Atlanta on Oct. 3 with their largest come from behind victory in school history, and they entered their off week with no shortage of momentum.
The question now is whether UNC can build on it. Without a game to prepare his team for last weekend, UNC coach Larry Fedora spent the first half of practice last week focusing solely on his team and addressing its points of weakness.
He found plenty of them even in what might have been his most memorable victory at UNC.
“There’s nothing that we don’t need to improve in,” Fedora said. “You go back and you can look at the Georgia Tech game. I mean, we were below average on special teams. Defensively, early in the game we struggled. Offensively, we wasted some series early in the game.”
Proof of improvement
The Tar Heels improved enough against Georgia Tech to erase a deficit that was once as large as 21 points. And through the first five games this season, they’ve improved enough from the last to become perhaps the leading contender to win the ACC’s Coastal Division, which appears wide open.
UNC entered its bye week with tangible proof of how far it has come since the end of last season. The Tar Heels, for one, are playing with more intelligence. They ranked 110th nationally last season in penalties per game (7.62) and are 25th (with an average of 5 penalties per game) this season.
Then there’s the defense. Fedora often faced the same question in the preseason: How much defensive improvement could be realistically expected? The answer, after five games: A lot.
The Tar Heels ended last season ranked 117th nationally in total defense after they allowed an average of nearly 500 yards per game. Through its first five games this season, UNC is allowing 357.2 yards per game, which ranks 44th nationally.
“They’re very attentive,” Gene Chizik, the first-year defensive coordinator, said last week. “They’re very focused in and locked in on what we’re asking them to do. It doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. But what’s encouraging is that I feel like we’re building a foundation of concepts that they understand.”
Next up, Wake
The Tar Heels’ performance in the second half at Georgia Tech might have been their best in a half in Fedora’s four seasons as head coach. They outscored the Yellow Jackets 24-10, usually excelled offensively and figured out a way to stop Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense.
Then came the bye week, which came at a good time, as it always does, for players in need of rest and recovery and a bad time, perhaps, for a team coming off the highest of highs. UNC can quickly reestablish momentum, though, with a strong performance this weekend against Wake Forest.
Victories the next two weekends, against the Demon Deacons and then at home, again, against Virginia, would leave UNC with a 6-1 record. That would be the Tar Heels’ best start since 1997.
Not that Fedora and his players are keeping track of such things. Marquise Williams, the fifth-year senior quarterback, said last week that he hadn’t even heard the stories going around suggesting that UNC had emerged as the early clear favorite to win the Coastal.
“I haven’t been too much in the papers,” Williams said. “One minute no one talks about us, now everybody wants to talk about us. So I just – I keep my cool and I try to keep the same (approach). Just keep winning games, you know.
“They’re going to keep talking about you once you win games.”
UNC has won four of them in a row, and after a week off now hopes to build on its streak.