Defensive Promise Despite Mistakes

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Despite a handful of crippling mistakes in Thursday's loss, Larry Fedora and his coaching staff took away a variety of positives from North Carolina's defensive performance against South Carolina.

Three plays. 169 yards. 21 points.

That's all South Carolina needed to deliver a 27-10 victory over the Tar Heels at Williams-Brice Stadium in the opening game of the 2013 college football season.

On Monday, Fedora attempted to shift the media's attention beyond those big plays, instead focusing on how well his defense played in South Carolina's other 55 offensive snaps.

"Defensively, if you look at what we did other than four plays, we did some really good things," Fedora told reporters during his weekly press conference. "We just gave up four big plays. If you don't give those four big plays up then you're sitting in here talking about a different defense. But we understand that's part of the game and you've got to play every play."

Fedora didn't disclose the fourth play on the list, although he later mentioned a missed assignment by Bandit Norkeithus Otis on a zone-read that sprung Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw for a 21-yard gain.

The three touchdown scores were glaring. Shaw connected with Shaq Roland on a post route for a 65-yard scoring strike, a play that Fedora described by saying that cornerback Tim Scott got beat and didn't get any help from the safety.

On South Carolina's next possession, backup quarterback Dylan Thompson found Kane Whitehurst open across the middle for a 29-yard touchdown. The final backbreaker came in the third quarter when a missed tackle allowed Mike Davis to scamper 75 yards for a touchdown.

Fedora, however, wasn't attempting to prop up his defense's performance for public relations purposes on Monday. The same discussions took place with his team on Friday during film review.

"When we looked at film, we saw a lot of good things we can take away," senior defensive end Kareem Martin said. "They were the No. 6 team in the country and we felt like we beat ourselves, especially defensively."

The Gamecocks churned out 228 rushing yards on 38 carries, good for a 6.0-yard per carry average. Otis delivered UNC's lone sack as the third quarter clock ran out.

On paper, those results make sense – South Carolina's offensive line averaged 322.4 pounds compared to UNC's defensive line average weight of 271.3.

"We were outmatched as far as physicalness just in stature alone," Fedora said. "It wasn't like Tim [Jackson] or [Shawn] Underwood or any of those guys didn't play well up front. They played okay. They were matched up against some pretty good-sized guys."

Fedora pointed to recruiting and development as cures in that area, noting that the current roster had only been working under strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez for a year.

According to Martin, the size differential in the trenches wasn't as big of a factor as South Carolina's running backs. Davis (5-foot-9, 215 pounds) and Brandon Wilds (6-foot-2, 223 pounds) complicated the defensive line's duties by adding a battering ram-like feature out of the backfield.

"They weren't coming down with arm tackles and just one tackle; you had to hit them low and get a lot of guys to the ball," Martin said. "We were getting guys to the ball, but we realized it late, underestimating their size and how big they were. I think they gashed us a little bit early on."

A prime example occurred on South Carolina's second possession. UNC had forced a 4th-and-2, but Steve Spurrier elected to run the ball from the Tar Heels' 30-yard line. Martin penetrated and hit Wilds two yards behind the line of scrimmage, but the sophomore shed several tackles in fighting for an 8-yard gain.

Associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning focused on the positives during film breakdown. Players running to the ball in large numbers particularly had the defensive staff upbeat, according to Martin, who added that Koenning said the defense had the fewest amount of loafs he had ever seen in a season opener.

"You take away a couple of plays and the game's 10-9, as Coach Vic was saying," Martin said. "That's definitely helpful going forward. We had two big plays – the big long run and the third play of the game – and I think if you take those MA's out or just get our fits right on defense, those plays don't happen. Going forward that's definitely something we can build on."

On Sunday afternoon, Koenning was intent in solidifying unity on defensive calls. UNC's missed assignments on Thursday were related to at least one player being out of sync, so the emphasis in practice was working as a group. If someone missed a run fit or if a defensive back didn't drop back far enough, then Koenning would reload the play.

While the big plays was the first topic addressed on Friday, the defense's potential once everyone was on the same page ended up being the most significant takeaway.

"We didn't have many missed assignments, but the ones that we did have, of course, turned into big plays," Martin said.

The fact that Koenning, who expressed his frustration throughout the 2012 season, was upbeat less than 24 hours after a loss is telling. Quick corrections are required, however, as Saturday's opponent, Middle Tennessee State, represents the first of three consecutive opponents that scored 45 or more points over Labor Day weekend.

 

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