A fumbled punt near midfield killed UNC’s momentum in its season-opening loss at South Carolina. A staggering 37 missed defensive assignments turned what should have been a competitive game against East Carolina into an embarrassing blowout. And less than two weeks ago against Miami on a national stage, UNC’s offense scored one touchdown in five red zone trips.
Add in a plethora of penalties and the explanation for UNC’s 1-5 start was readily available for everyone to see.
In North Carolina’s workmanlike 34-10 dismantling of Boston College over the weekend, however, those mistakes were kept to a minimum. Instead of battling itself as much as the opponent, UNC played a relatively clean game and took advantage of its opportunities to claim its first ACC victory of the season and keep hope alive for a postseason appearance.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters on Monday that his primary takeaway from Saturday’s win, as well as the last-second loss to Miami, is that his team is making progress in certain areas when the lights are on.
“We haven’t arrived but we’re getting better,” Fedora said. “We’re getting better in a lot of positions and we’re getting better in a lot of situations…
"We want to build off that each week, hopefully the good things that happened this past week, as far as taking care of the football. We were much better in the critical situations. Defensively, we really gave up one big play. Still looking for a game changing play in our special teams and we haven’t done that yet. Hopefully that’s going to come through but there were still a lot fewer mental mistakes in all three phases.”
Through six games, UNC ranked T-102nd nationally in red zone touchdown percentage (52.6). Against the Eagles, UNC scored touchdowns on all five red zone opportunities. Nine of the Tar Heels’ 15 red zone touchdowns this season has come in their two wins.
Fedora attributed his team’s red zone success to better execution, as well as increased energy and intensity. That also filtered into other critical situations, such as third down conversions. UNC’s third-down conversion increased to 44.6 percent (44th nationally) after hitting on 50 percent against Boston College (8-of-16).
UNC also won the turnover battle, 1-0.
Senior quarterback Bryn Renner pointed to better preparation along with taking care of the ball and more energy in explaining the offense’s efficiency. He placed a big emphasis on the role of practice on UNC’s overall performance in its last two outings.
“How we practice is how we’re going to play,” Renner said. “The last two weeks, especially against Miami and even in the Boston College preparation, everybody practiced really hard and really well. I think that’s what carried over on Saturday.”
Defensively, the Tar Heels held Boston College to 261 total yards of offense, including 59 passing yards (fewest allowed since ‘97).
“We played together as a defense,” Schoettmer said. “We’ve been playing hard all year… The scheme the coaches put in was a good scheme. We tried to keep it simple; didn’t have many calls for the game. So I think that allowed us to play fast and not have to really think about anything and just go play.”
More importantly, the missed assignments that have plagued this defense for the better part of two years were virtually none existent. The Eagles churned out just six plays of 10+ yards and two were in the opening eight minutes of the game, including Andre Williams’ 56-yard touchdown run.
“If you look at the film of the Boston College game, probably the one glaring mistake was the long touchdown run – a D-lineman slanted the wrong way – but we went over on the sideline and got that corrected,” middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said.
Tackling has been an issue for UNC all season long, prompting the defensive staff to install 1-on-1 tackling drills at the beginning of practice.
UNC’s performance against Miami - despite the loss – provided the Tar Heels with a sense that they were getting close to where they wanted to be, according to Schoettmer.
To drive the point home, senior defensive end Kareem Martin called a players’ only meeting on Friday, reminding his teammates how well they played at Georgia Tech before taking a step back with the ECU letdown. He stressed the need to maintain intensity to keep the progress moving in a forward direction.
“We’re one of those defenses that has to play as a unit to be successful,” Martin said. “We can’t just count on one guy to make the play every time. If we’re going to be successful – especially this past week against a big back – the only way we could get him down is if everyone was swarming to the ball and gang tackling.”
And while UNC committed a trio of personal foul penalties on Saturday, it kept its total down to 50 penalty yards on four flags.
With the front-loaded schedule loosening up as October draws to a close, the only thing preventing the Tar Heels from making a late-season push is a regression to multiple mistakes across all three phases.
“It’s just about us executing,” Schoettmer said.