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UNC speaking different defensive languages amid frustrating 0-2 start

Louisville's Lamar Jackson (8) reaches over the goal line to score a TD during the fourth quarter in a game between UNC and Louisville at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill on Sept. 9, 2017. Jason Strowbridge (55), Myles Dorn (1) and Patrice Rene (5) defend for the Tar Heels.
Louisville's Lamar Jackson (8) reaches over the goal line to score a TD during the fourth quarter in a game between UNC and Louisville at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill on Sept. 9, 2017. Jason Strowbridge (55), Myles Dorn (1) and Patrice Rene (5) defend for the Tar Heels. cseward@newsobserver.com

Listening to North Carolina’s defensive players on Saturday, following a 47-35 defeat against Louisville, and one could have been forgiven for thinking that they might have been speaking several different languages while they allowed the Cardinals an historic offensive output.

Given all the talk about the lack of communication, and communication breakdowns, and the failure to communicate properly, and one might have thought that the defensive line was speaking one language, the linebackers another and the secondary yet another. Over and over, they repeated that word.

“Honestly, (it was) communication,” senior linebacker Cayson Collins said, again, attempting to explain how the Tar Heels allowed 705 yards, more than any other opponent had ever gained at Kenan Stadium. “That’s really been it. Everybody being on the same page.”

North Carolina linebacker Cayson Collins tells reporters that it was a lack of execution that was the biggest problem for the Tar Heels in their loss to Louisville.

A few seats away, Donnie Miles, the senior safety, was describing communication problems of his own, while Malik Carney, the defensive end, said that UNC’s problem on Saturday was “everybody not communicating on the same page.”

University of North Carolina defensive back Donnie Miles breaks down UNC's 47-35 loss to Louisville.

No one, though, could precisely detail what everybody meant when they cited communication problems, and Collins, even, said he “really can’t speak to it.” Perhaps Carney provided the best explanation, when he implied that some of UNC’s defensive players simply didn’t know which play to run on Saturday.

“Just making sure everybody got the call,” said Carney, explaining those communicative woes. “Some people may miss the call. Some people may think we’re in a different call, because we do have three (play) signalers. It’s just a lot going on, making sure everybody is on the same page. ...

“Just executing the actual play instead of doing your own thing out there on the field. That goes a long way.”

Two games into a Tar Heels’ season that is quickly in peril, it is clear that they are not on “the same page,” as Carney put it, on defense. First UNC allowed 469 yards against a rebuilt California offense in a surprising 35-30 defeat to open the season. And then came Saturday, and something far worse.

In some respects, the Tar Heels knew what they were in for. Louisville arrived at Kenan Stadium with one of the nation’s best offenses, and with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Lamar Jackson. Even a “good” defensive performance, however that might have been defined, might not have been good enough to win.

This, though, was far from good. If “good” was the goal on Saturday, it was as elusive as Jackson and the rest of the Cardinals’ offense, which ran around UNC’s defense, and past it, and through it, with ease – over and over again. UNC coach Larry Fedora, who usually avoids offering harsh criticism in the moments after games, sounded especially frustrated in the aftermath of this one.

“We weren’t even close to receivers when the guys were catching the ball,” he said, and that was especially true when Jackson found Dez Fitzpatrick wide open for a 30-yard touchdown with about 9½ minutes remaining. “And I don’t know that you can say that’s because of Lamar Jackson.

“We’ve got to do a much better job on that back end.”

For the UNC defense, Jackson’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Fitzpatrick might have been the most disheartening play of the game. For one, it came on a third-and-8, when a defensive stop would have still given the Tar Heels, trailing 33-28 at the time, a chance. Second, that score came after UNC used just a three-man rush, dropping eight defensive players – considered the maximum – into pass coverage.

“Again, miscommunication,” Collins said, using the word of the day.

UNC defensive end Malik Carney talks about problems on defense for the Tar Heels in their ACC loss to Louisville.

Jackson, who has made many a defense “look foolish,” as Fedora put it earlier in the week, became the second player in major college football history to finish with at least 300 yards passing (393 on Saturday) and at least 100 yards rushing (132) in consecutive games. UNC tried what it could against him – blitzes, dropping back in coverage, trying to keep him in the pocket – and nothing worked consistently.

Jackson’s success wasn’t surprising. He has produced these kinds of gaudy statistical lines many times before. The degree of his success, though, and its frequency was alarming given that UNC expected its defense to carry the team early in the season, while its rebuilt offense found its footing. Instead, the Tar Heels’ defense, two games into a long season, has been a liability during UNC’s 0-2 start.

Only twice in school history has UNC allowed more yards than it did on Saturday. Both of those – the 756 yards it allowed in a loss against Baylor in a 2015 bowl game, and the 789 yards it allowed in a defeat at ECU in 2014 – came in Fedora’s six-year head coaching tenure. And those performances all came under different defensive coordinators: Vic Koenning in 2014, Gene Chizik in ’15 and J.P. Papuchis on Saturday.

When Chizik resigned in February to spend more time with his family, Fedora quickly promoted Papuchis, who’d spent two years as Chizik’s linebackers coach. The expectation was that the defense wouldn’t change much and that, if anything, a familiarity with the scheme would allow the Tar Heels to be more aggressive than they were under Chizik, known for his conservatism.

“It’s not a whole lot of difference in their philosophies and the way we do things,” Fedora said, comparing Papuchis to Chizik. “To be honest with you, if you were with us in our practices or in meetings, it’s the same as it was last year.”

The results have not been the same, though. The Tar Heels endured some defensive letdowns last season, but nothing like what they experienced on Saturday, when they allowed seven passes of at least 20 yards – including a 75-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter – and 11 rushing plays of at least 10 yards.

UNC’s proclivity for allowing the big play has its defensive players wondering what’s going on, and how to fix it. It has left them frustrated, as several players said they were on Saturday, and questioning how and why they’re left misunderstanding the defensive scheme play after play.

“It’s not a problem to where we can’t fix,” said Carney, the defensive end. “It just has to be done. We’ve got to know how to communicate constantly, over and over, each and every down.”

Two games into the season, the Tar Heels’ defense is reminiscent of their 2014 defense, which is remembered as one of the worst in school history. One has to go back that far, three years, for another game in which UNC allowed at least 8 yards per play, as it did on Saturday.

The failures of that season led to the arrival of Chizik, and the current defensive scheme. Collins, the linebacker, was a freshman on that 2014 team. The memories have stayed with him, but he said he doesn’t see similarities between then and now.

“We have better leaders than we did my freshman year,” he said. “We have better coaches than we did my freshman year. And guys take it more seriously than we did my freshman year.”

The frustration level now, though, is the same as it was then. After two games, the Tar Heels look like they’re speaking different defensive languages, the communication failures compiling as quickly as the opponent’s highlights and yardage totals.

Listen to UNC football coach Larry Fedora's press conference following the Tar Heels' loss to Louisville in their ACC opener.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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