How North Carolina is trying to fix its third down woes in time for Appalachian State

There are a handful of teams in the country that convert less than a quarter of their third downs.

North Carolina is one of them.

Through three games this season, the Tar Heels rank 126th out of 130 teams in third down conversion percentage (21.4 percent). Only Northern Illinois, UAB, New Mexico and Georgia Southern rank lower.

Compared to Appalachian State, which UNC faces on Saturday, the Mountaineers convert 52.1 percent of their third downs.

The Tar Heels’ inability to convert on third down has led to slow starts in two of their first three games, and has forced them to have to come back to win games. Against South Carolina on Aug. 31, the Tar Heels trailed by 11 before coming back to win 24-20. They were 5 of 16 on third downs.

Against Miami, the Tar Heels were 2 of 10 on third downs, and trailed by five points in the fourth quarter before winning 28-25.

And most recently, against Wake Forest last Friday, the Tar Heels were 2 of 16 on third downs, and trailed 21-3 through three quarters, but lost 24-18.

UNC (2-1) faces Appalachian State (2-0) at home on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. It’s a chance for UNC to get back on track after the loss to Wake. If UNC can’t fix its third-down woes, it could be staring at a 2-2 record heading into its game with No. 1 Clemson (3-0) on Sept. 28.

So why hasn’t UNC been good on third downs?

“Third-downs on offense have been atrocious because we’re not putting ourselves in the position to make them,” UNC coach Mack Brown said in a press conference on Monday. “It’s first and second down that causes third down to be so hard.”

The Tar Heels faced third-and-nine or longer a season-high nine times on Friday and converted only one. Their average distance to go on third downs was 8.9 yards, which is a difficult task for any quarterback, let alone a true freshman like UNC’s Sam Howell.

They also committed three penalties for 20 yards on third downs, which pushed them back even further.

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Running game

After gaining 238 yards on the ground against South Carolina, the Tar Heels haven’t had the same success running the football on early downs. A big reason for that is the offensive line, which has struggled since losing senior center Nick Polino to a lower body injury against Miami.

The Tar Heels rushed for 97 yards against the Hurricanes, and 144 yards against Wake Forest, with most coming in the fourth quarter of those games. Because of the lack of success running the ball, the Tar Heels have had to pass it on third and long situations.

While its called the Air Raid Offense, UNC’s offense is predicated on an effective running game. And UNC has the weapons to be a great running team. Junior running back Michael Carter, sophomore Javonte Williams and senior Antonio Williams all rushed for 50 yards or more against South Carolina.

This is where UNC could take advantage of Appalachian State. The Mountaineers give up 180 rushing yards per game, which is ranked 90th in the country out of 130 FBS teams.

But UNC’s offensive line has to do a better job of blocking, especially in the first three quarters.

Protecting the quarterback

The Tar Heels’ offensive line also allowed Howell to be sacked a season-high six times against Wake Forest. That also put UNC is tough third-down situations.

Howell finished 17 of 28 for 182 yards and two touchdowns, but was 5 of 10 in the first half and had only 17 yards.

“We’re having way too many sacks,” Brown said. “I told our coaches that’s on coaching. If your guy is not good enough to block their guy, you’ve got to get him some help. Or you’ve got to do something for your quarterback... We’ve got to fix those things.”

Appalachian State can give UNC problems. The Mountaineers average three sacks per game, which is ranked 25th in the country.

“Appalachian State is good enough that they can be in the ACC,” Brown said. “They’re that good.

“We’ve got to do a better job of being more consistent, especially offensively during the game.”

Injury news

UNC offensive lineman Jordan Tucker, and tight end Carl Tucker were questionable for Saturday’s game against Appalachian State with lower-body injuries. UNC defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge was probable.

Carl Tucker and Strowbridge missed Friday’s game against Wake with their injuries.

Appalachian State at UNC

When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill

Watch: Fox Sports South

Listen: WTKK-106.1 Raleigh; WCHL-97.9, WCHL-1360 Chapel Hill; WBT-99.3, WBT-1110 Charlotte

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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