Shakeel Rashad, North Carolina’s senior linebacker, was talking on Monday about what the Tar Heels need to do defensively against Clemson in the ACC Championship game, going down the list of checkpoints before UNC’s sternest defensive challenge of the season.
The Tar Heels would have to “fit the run well,” Rashad said, and also “cover well.”
“And then,” he said, “stop (quarterback) Deshaun Watson from getting out and running the ball.”
In other words, “We’re going to have to play defense is what I just said, I think,” Rashad said with a laugh.
He made it sound so simple: limit the holes in Clemson’s running game. Cover receivers well. Keep Watson, the dynamic dual-threat quarterback, from escaping the pocket and making plays on the run.
If only it were that easy. The Tar Heels have won 11 consecutive games and they’ll enter the ACC Championship game in Charlotte on Saturday unbeaten in the ACC in the regular season for the first time since 1980, back when head coach Larry Fedora was in high school.
UNC has made some history this season in large part because of a historic defensive turnaround. The Tar Heels’ defense was among the worst in school history a season ago. Now it’s perhaps the most improved in the country.
In recent weeks, though, the defense hasn’t quite been as strong – at least statistically – as it was earlier this season. UNC allowed a season-high 34 points during a 45-34 victory at N.C. State on Saturday.
The weekend before that the Tar Heels surrendered two touchdowns – albeit on a short field, after turnovers – late in regulation of an overtime victory at Virginia Tech. And not long before that, UNC built a large lead against Duke before surrendering 31 points and a season-high 533 yards.
The relative recent defensive struggles, though, come with a caveat: against both Duke and N.C. State, at least, victory was well in hand before the opposing offenses found their rhythm and, eventually, the end zone.
So how much can be made of the Tar Heels relative recent defensive woes? Are they cause for concern, or a byproduct – in the case of the victories against Duke and N.C. State – of games that were essentially decided by halftime?
Fedora on Monday said part of UNC’s defensive woes, if they could be called that, against N.C. State could be attributed to the early margin the Tar Heels created. They led 35-7 at the end of the first quarter.
“Some of that you can put on me,” Fedora said of the defensive lapses on Saturday. “Because there were points in the game where I said, ‘Gene, they’ve got to do this, this and this to beat us, all right. Make them work for every yard they get, all right. Don’t give them anything big.’”
That directive, Fedora said, limited the options for Gene Chizk, UNC’s first-year defensive coordinator. Leading by several touchdowns, Chizik kept the defense basic – vanilla.
There were few blitzes and little aggressive play-calling. The defensive approach, after UNC built such a significant lead, was to limit the Wolfpack’s long plays and make it crawl its way back into the game one yard at a time.
Which N.C. State did, in some respects. It used a nine-play, 97-yard touchdown drive to cut UNC’s lead to 35-23 late in the third quarter.
“The drive that went 97 yards – that’s not our (defensive) standard, no,” Fedora said. “But after that, a lot of that stuff’s on me. So I think that they have done a better job since that Duke game of when we get into that situation, playing better.”
Against Duke, UNC led 38-10 at halftime before allowing three second-half touchdowns. Then, after another lopsided victory against Miami, UNC lost a 24-10 fourth quarter lead at Virginia Tech, where the Hokies forced overtime with a pair of late touchdowns in Frank Beamer’s final home game.
The recent defensive lapses don’t bode well given what the Tar Heels will face on Saturday.
“This is the best offense we have faced this year,” Fedora said of Clemson. “No doubt about it. And this is the best defense we’ve faced this year. This is the best football team we have faced. I mean, they’re the number one team in the country.”
Clemson is averaging 502.5 yards per game, which ranks 14th nationally. The Tigers are averaging nearly 6.5 yards per play – UNC ranks second nationally there, with an average of 7.46 yards per play – and Watson is likely to be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
When the teams met last season in Clemson, Watson made his first college start. More than a year later, the numbers and the highlights of the Tigers’ 50-35 victory run together.
“I think he threw for 400 yards and five touchdowns, and that’s the first thing that resonates in my mind,” Jeff Schoettmer, UNC’s senior linebacker, said on Monday. “And they scored 50-plus points.”
Watson actually threw for 436 yards and six touchdowns – some of them on passes to receivers who ran wide open, not a defender in sight.
“They’re definitely an explosive offense but we’re definitely a new defense, as well,” Schoettmer said.
That has been clear from the start. At this point a season ago, UNC had allowed 5,978 yards. Through 12 games this season the Tar Heels have given up 4,739 yards, and they’re allowing about 1.3 fewer yards per play than they did a year ago.
But now comes the most difficult challenge of the season: figuring out how to slow Watson and the Tigers, who are averaging 37.9 points per game. Part of UNC’s relative defensive problems in November could be attributed to games that grew out of hand in a hurry.
UNC overwhelmed Duke early, and did the same thing to Miami and then again at N.C. State.
“When you’re up like that, human nature is to not be as intense and not be as focused,” Fedora said. “And we’ve got to do that. We’ve got to do a better job of that.”
Focus shouldn’t be lacking on Saturday given what awaits. UNC’s revamped, rebuilt defense hasn’t faced an offense, statistically, that comes close to matching the one at Clemson.
The Tar Heels remember well what happened the last time they saw it.
“So we’re excited for the opportunity,” Schoettmer said. “As a competitor and an athlete, you want to play the best team. And to be the best you’ve got to beat the best.”