Was it Lamar Jackson or mistakes that beat the Tar Heels?
Larry Fedora heard the criticism for about 10 years, he said, though he never placed much value in it, anyway, despite the logical soundness. It went something like this: The way he coaches his offense – to play at a fast, relentless pace – in turn hurts his team’s defense.
The reasoning is simple enough. The faster the pace an offense plays, the less time it spends on the field. And the less time the offense is on the field, the more time the defense takes its place. And the more time the defense spends on the field, the greater the chance of defensive fatigue.
“In ’99, probably for the first 10 years, that’s what everybody talked about, wrote about, how it must be killing the defense,” said Fedora, the North Carolina head coach who became an offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State in 1999. “But everybody in the country’s doing it now.
“So defenses have adjusted, and they’re doing fine.”
UNC’s defense, however, is not doing fine. The Tar Heels, who on Saturday at Old Dominion will seek their first victory of the season, have faded late in each of their first two games – defeats against California and Louisville.
UNC led both games entering the fourth quarter. And then, in both, its defense faltered while allowing several catastrophic plays, some of them touchdowns. Last Saturday at Kenan Stadium, Louisville averaged 12.2 yards per play in the fourth quarter.
Combined, Cal and Louisville outscored UNC 34-13 during the fourth quarter. The Tar Heels’ late breakdowns, replete with communication failures, poor tackling and opposing receivers running wide open, have raised questions about their conditioning and stamina.
In particular, it has raised the question of whether UNC’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense has put its vulnerable defense in a position to fail. Throughout Fedora’s six seasons, the Tar Heels’ offense has never spent more time on the field than its defense.
Last season represented the most glaring contrast in time of possession, with UNC’s defense spending an average of 11 minutes, 14 seconds more time on the field than the offense. By comparison, the difference in possession time through two games this season, about 5½ minutes, is almost negligible.
That’s the smallest gap in UNC’s time of possession since 2013, when its opponents had the ball, on average, about 4½ minutes more per game than the Tar Heels did. UNC’s defense is accustomed to playing at a frenetic pace, given it practices against such an offense every day.
Clearly, though, the defense has worn down late in the first two weeks. Fedora said after practice earlier this week, as he has before, that he wouldn’t change his offensive strategy, and particularly the speed at which it runs, in effort to try to keep the defense fresher.
“No, no, no,” Fedora said, shaking his head.
To him, the defense’s fatigue problems aren’t a result of UNC’s relatively quick possessions. They are instead the result of the defense’s inability to create stops and end drives earlier in games.
“Well, if you don’t get off the field, it can definitely be a factor,” he said of fourth-quarter fatigue. “If you’re on the field 48 plays in the first half, because you don’t get off the field on third down, it’s going to be a factor, you know?
“And so we’ve got to do a much better job of getting off the field on third downs.”
UNC’s defense has failed in a variety of ways during the first two weeks. It is allowing 20-yard plays at nearly the double the rate it did last season, for instance, and no major-conference team in the country has allowed more yards per game (587) or per play than UNC through the first two weeks.
Many of the Tar Heels’ defensive problems can be traced to their inability to create stops on third down. Cal and Louisville combined to convert 17 of their 33 third downs (51.5 percent). Only 12 teams nationally have allowed their opponents to convert third downs at a greater rate.
Last week, Louisville converted nine of its 15 third downs. The Cardinals converted both of their fourth-quarter third downs, one of which began as a third-and-8 and ended with Lamar Jackson’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Dez Fitzpatrick. Jackson set a record for individual total offense against UNC.
“I know I felt really embarrassed after Saturday, giving up 600, 700 yards, or like 500 yards to one person,” M.J. Stewart, the UNC senior cornerback, said earlier this week. “Kudos to him, he’s a great player, but I felt embarrassed as an individual on our defense, and I felt embarrassed for our defense.”
One of the quickest ways to end the embarrassment is to generate defensive stops on third down. The Tar Heels have failed to do that often enough through the first two weeks, leaving their defense on the field for long stretches. Late in games, their fatigue has been clear.