John Bunting’s tenure as North Carolina’s head coach will forever be marked as one of defensive ineptitude. A quick glance through the school record book indicates that opponents set 11 yardage and scoring records during the Bunting era (’01-06), including eight of the top-11 total offense offerings in UNC football history.
Quite possibly the worst three-game display occurred during October ’04, in which N.C. State (577 yards), Utah (669) and Miami (415) combined for 1,661 total yards of offense on 7.48 yards per play.
North Carolina’s current three-game streak – 1,454 yards on 6.43 yards per play – is a long way from that ’04 mark, but the troubling difference is that fans and pundits knew what to expect from the Bunting-led defenses. As one local reporter famously quipped, Bunting’s defenses couldn’t stop a herd of charging toddlers.
The level of preseason expectations for UNC’s current defense is on a completely different level. The defensive line is loaded with future NFL draft picks, including two preseason All-ACC players in end Quinton Coples and tackle Tydreke Powell, and Kevin Reddick and Zach Brown can make a case as two of the top linebackers in the league.
The secondary, of course, provided plenty of cause for concern. The positives (the return of two-year starter Charles Brown; freshmen talent) failed to outweigh the negatives (the loss of three starters to graduation; preseason injury to starting corner Jabari Price) and a roster shakeup in August led to even more question marks.
But an odd thing has happened during the first five weeks of the season – Withers has gone out of his way to praise his defense. When asked about Virginia’s 468 total yards of offense following UNC’s 28-17 victory on Sept. 17, the interim head coach indicated that the points, not the yards, are what’s important.
After giving up 496 yards and 35 points in a losing effort at Georgia Tech, Withers once again said the game was not about the yards and seemed to place more blame for the loss on the offense than the defense.
On Monday, Withers responded to a question about his defense by pointing out another stat that carries more weight with him.
”Defensively, people want to talk about yards,” Withers said during his weekly press conference. “The last opponents have been unique offenses. The stats I like are our red zone stats. To me, if you can be good in the red zone, you’ve got a chance to play good defense.”
Withers makes a valid point. The Tar Heels are tied for 22nd nationally in red zone defense, allowing 13 scores (7 TD, 6 FG) in 18 attempts. That stat and UNC’s scoring defense mark (20.8 ppg, 36th) provides a stark contract to the rest of the program’s defensive rankings – 94th in pass defense (258.8 ypg), 74th in pass efficiency defense (131.7), 68th in total defense (381.8 ypg), 67th in third-down defense (40.3) and 43rd in rushing defense (123.0 ypg).
That combination of numbers reads like a how-to guide for a “bend, but don’t break” defensive philosophy, but Withers bristled when asked about that approach.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Withers said. “I’m saying when you play unique offenses like we’ve played the last two weeks, then that’s what you do. I don’t want them to get any yards, but I know the triple option is going to get yards and I know the spread offense throwing the ball 50 times a game is going to get yards. I’m not ignorant on that.”
His players have similar beliefs concerning the large chunks of yardage opponents have been piling up in recent weeks.
“I really don’t think it’s that big of a factor for us,” senior safety Matt Merletti said. “Honestly, as long as we get the win, I’m happy and I think our defense is happy, our whole team is happy. Obviously, we’re going to try to cut down on those yards as much as we can, but especially with these last two weeks, when a team is throwing the ball 50 times they’re going to get yards. When a team is running 50 times, they’re going to get yards. So it’s one of those things that kind of skews the stats a little bit.”
In North Carolina’s first game against ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s aerial assault last season, the Pirates were held to 347 yards of total offense. In its first three contests against Paul Johnson’s offense at Georgia Tech, UNC allowed an average of 425.7 yards per game.
Withers stressed on Monday that he wanted his defense to tackle better and take advantage of opportunities to force more turnovers. Merletti added that UNC’s pass defense needed to improve and that it falls on the secondary to bear that responsibility.
“We need to do a better job,” senior cornerback Charles Brown said in echoing his teammate’s comments. “Some stuff is just basic mental mistakes. We gave up too many big plays this past week, too many long pass plays. If we eliminate just a few of those long pass plays, the outcome of the game could be a lot different… We’ve got a couple of young guys back there, so it’s going to happen from time to time, but that’s still no excuse. We just want to make sure we eliminate those real big plays and come up and tackle the shorter ones and we’ll be okay.”
North Carolina’s defense should get a reprieve this weekend against a Louisville squad that ranks 86th in total offense (359.8 ypg) and 105th in scoring offense (18.75 ppg).