Gene Chizik on UNC run defense: ‘It’s got to be fixed’

UNC cornerback Des Lawrence said a key against Florida State running back Dalvin Cook on Saturday will be to limit his north-south running lanes.
UNC cornerback Des Lawrence said a key against Florida State running back Dalvin Cook on Saturday will be to limit his north-south running lanes. rwillett@newsobserver.com

It has become a weekly rite after North Carolina practices, as much a part of the familiar as extra conditioning work and time spent in the cold tub. Once a week, every week, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik spends time with a small gaggle of reporters.

And once a week, every week, he bemoans the Tar Heels’ defensive performance from the previous Saturday while expressing hope that it can, and will, be better the next Saturday. It has happened that way for four weeks now, though at least there was something different about it on Tuesday.

For once, Chizik could speak with pride about a defense that played a meaningful and significant role in a close victory. For once, he could elaborate on sustained success – the kind that helped lead the Tar Heels to their 37-36 victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday.

“When everything comes down to the end, and you have to have a play, somebody’s got to make it,” Chizik said days after his defense forced consecutive three-and-outs that allowed UNC’s rally to transpire. “And they did that and gave us a chance to win – so I was very proud of them for that.”

Chizk left that game, though, with the same question many have asked since: Over the span of four quarters, can the Tar Heels play like they did during the final one against the Panthers? It’s a critical question, especially, during this critical portion of the season for UNC.

The Tar Heels play at Florida State on Saturday. The following weekend they return home against Virginia Tech. And then it’s back on the road to Florida again for a game at Miami on Oct. 15.

This four-game stretch, which began last weekend with the stunning comeback victory against Pitt, will define the direction of UNC’s season. And without significant defensive improvement – the kind that inspired the Tar Heels’ rally last weekend – UNC could be forced to recreate what it did on Saturday.

The Tar Heels, trailing by 13 points midway through the fourth quarter, scored two touchdowns in the final 5½ minutes. The last of those, which came with two seconds remaining, provided UNC a happy ending after what had been another long day – especially against the run.

“I’m not going to say I’m happy with it,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said of his team’s run defense. “We’ve got to do a much better job of limiting the run. But as long as we score one more point than they do, we’ve got something to build off of and work on.”

Fedora said he has “no doubt” that UNC’s porous run defense can improve.

“The last three series of the game tells me it can be fixed,” he said.

The first one-third of the season, though, tells a different story. Through four games, the Tar Heels rank 90th nationally in total defense (424.8 yards per game). They’re 83rd nationally in yards per play allowed (5.63) and now rank 118th nationally in rushing defense (240.3 yards per game).

The numbers are bad enough on their own. They’re especially concerning given UNC’s challenge on Saturday, when it will somehow try to contain Dalvin Cook, the Florida State running back who, in about eight seconds, can turn a routine carry up the middle into a 75-yard touchdown.

“He has some of the best feet in the nation,” said Des Lawrence, the UNC senior cornerback. “So we’re just going to have to get a lot of guys to the ball – that way he’s going east and west, and not north and south. Because he runs north to south, he’s leaving everybody.”

The Tar Heels have been left before. Through four games they’ve allowed four plays of at least 50 yards. Only 10 teams in the country have allowed more, and with Cook the potential is high for the Tar Heels to surrender another especially long play – or three or four – on Saturday.

Cook is the latest greatest running back the Tar Heels will face. They’ve already seen Georgia’s Nick Chubb, who ran for 222 yards during the Bulldogs’ season-opening victory against UNC. The Tar Heels fared better against Pittsburgh’s James Connor, who still gained 130 total yards last Saturday.

Cook, though, is different from both Chubb and Connor. Those two are more likely to run through opposing defenders. Cook, meanwhile, is more adept at simply running past defenses, many of which are ill-equipped to counter his speed and elusiveness.

Chizik, the UNC defensive coordinator, smiled wryly at the mention of Cook earlier this week.

“He’s pretty good,” Chizik said, before repeating it. Then he used “amazing” three times in a span of about three seconds to describe Cook’s speed, vision and overall talent.

“If he makes those cuts and you miss him, then he can hit his head on the goal post – he’s that fast,” Chizik said. “He’s done it to pretty much everybody.”

What hope is there, then, for the Tar Heels’ beleaguered run defense? It has allowed a 100-yard rusher in each of UNC’s first four games. There’s a strong likelihood that happens again on Saturday, though Chizik and his players have made a point this week of emphasizing the importance of swarming.

The idea is to limit – if not eliminate – the chance of Cook finding himself in a one-on-one situation against a defender. Such a scenario, more often than not, would be a losing proposition for the Tar Heels, who don’t have a defensive player capable of neutralizing Cook’s quickness.

So the Tar Heels’ hope, instead, is to surround him. To eliminate the chance that Cook runs free.

Andre Smith, the UNC middle linebacker, said the defense took special note of the job Louisville did against Cook during the Cardinals’ 63-20 victory earlier this month. As Smith described it, the Cardinals “gang tackled” Cook, who gained 54 yards during the Seminoles’ defeat.

“We could definitely replicate that,” Smith said.

Not all defenses are created equally, though. The Tar Heels are surrendering, on average, twice as many rushing yards as Louisville – and more rushing yards per game than any Power 5 conference team except California.

Which is why the questions won’t go away, and why Chizik often repeats himself. Parts of the script have remained the same.

“It’s got to be fixed,” he said earlier this week, in a variation of what he’s said since the start of the preseason. “It’s got to be fixed. ... And I expect this week to be a step in the right direction, for sure.”

“We’ve really gone back over the month of September, re-evaluated everything and looked at it. I expect us to play much better against the run on Saturday.”