While there's been plenty of conversation this fall about the level of UNC's defensive talent, that variable in the equation is out of the players' control. Effort and execution, however, is primarily left to the individual.
When both are lacking, the result can be disastrous. Look no further than UNC's 55-31 loss to East Carolina. The Tar Heels totaled 37 missed assignments, and judging by associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning's fiery conversation with the media four days later, the number of loafs were likely in the same ballpark.
UNC responded against Virginia Tech with improved effort, holding the Hokies to 48 rushing yards and 341 total yards of offense.
"We had fewer [loafs] than we've probably had in a game in forever," Koenning said following Wednesday's practice. "So the effort was definitely there."
Head coach Larry Fedora agreed, but wasn't willing to praise his defense for its effort level.
"It was where it was supposed to be," Fedora said. "I don't want to have to pat everybody on the back when we do what we're supposed to do. So it was good; it was good. It was where it was supposed to be."
The Tar Heels also drastically reduced their missed assignment count, although two busted plays in the secondary led to 14 Virginia Tech points. Logan Thomas found Demitri Knowles behind the coverage for a 45-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. Roughly 17 minutes later, Thomas connected with Willie Byrn for 83 yards to move the Hokies into the red zone.
"Obviously, those two long pass plays were awful," Koenning said. "One was a well-conceived pass by them and the guy threw it great and Dominique [Green] didn't get turned just right. He was a fast guy and he made the play. The other one was just a bad play – there's no other way of saying it."
Four big plays allowed in the season opener prevented an opportunity for UNC to upset a top-10 team on the road and the two plays on Saturday gave the Hokies breathing room throughout the second half.
"Everybody can see it," Fedora said. "It's just a couple of things, a couple of breakdowns and if it's not for those breakdowns – which that's been a consistent thing for us – if we get those cut out, we can play solid defense and we can be a good defensive unit. The guys see it and they're frustrated with it, too. So we just keep working and we're going to cut them out eventually."
In 2012, UNC gave up nine rushing plays of 20 yards or more. That number is already up to seven through five games this season. But while it may not seem to be the case, the Tar Heels have only allowed nine passing plays of 25 yards or more in 2013 after giving up 27 in 2012.
On Saturday, UNC only allowed nine plays to go for 10 or more yards, including five that went for less than 20. This defense's margin of error, however, is incredibly slim.
"At least they came back and responded and played hard from an abysmal performance," Koenning said. "At least they played hard, but we can't give up 27 points and not create any takeaways. We're not going to win a bunch of games doing that. We've got to play better."
Therein lies a critical factor in North Carolina's defensive woes this season. UNC ranks T-97th nationally in turnover margin (minus-0.6), thanks in large part to a T-112th ranking in turnovers gained (5). The Tar Heels ranked 36th in that statistical category last season with 25 forced turnovers.
In 2012, UNC allowed 15 touchdown passes, but also intercepted 16 balls. Through five games this season, the Tar Heels have tallied four interceptions while giving up 10 touchdown passes.
In UNC's four losses, opponents have thrown nine touchdown passes while being intercepted just once.
"I thought we played a good game," free safety Tre Boston said. "There were a couple of miscommunications that led to touchdowns, but I didn't think it was bad. I think the guys' effort was really there. That was a tough loss. I thought we really went out there and played some good ball. Not our best ball, but we played well."
UNC may have to play its best ball next Thursday night against No. 13 Miami. The undefeated Hurricanes rank third in the ACC and 24th nationally in total offense (488.6 ypg), representing the Tar Heels' toughest defensive challenge yet.