In those first three losses of 2001, it was the offense that could not get on track. Going into their next game against Florida State, the Heels had recorded only five offensive touchdowns in three games, or less than two per game. During the five wins that followed, the offense rolled up 17 offensive touchdowns, over three touchdowns per game.
If the Tar Heels are going to duplicate that type of turnaround this season, it is the UNC defense that will have to experience a revival.
It wasn't exactly top secret information that the North Carolina defense would have to grow up quickly this season. Only one starter returned on the front seven, Will Chapman, and he was coming off a knee injury. Three new starters lined up at linebacker. The secondary looked solid, but overall the UNC defense would almost be starting from scratch.
North Carolina head coach John Bunting described the difference between last year's league-leading defense and this unit by saying, "Defense, basically, is team defense. As good as we were, individually, last year--and some of those guys made some great individual plays--we played as a team and played good team defense. We have done that at times this year, but we have to do it more consistently."
Through three games, the Heels currently rank seventh in the ACC in pass efficiency defense, eighth in rushing defense, eighth in total defense, and dead last in scoring defense. The learning curve has been steep, and the early Tar Heel schedule has been unforgiving.
The Texas Longhorns exposed many Tar Heel defensive weaknesses. The Tar Heels gave up 52 points and 569 yards of total offense to the nation's number two team. For a school with the proud defensive tradition of North Carolina, it was a sobering experience.
In the end, it may also prove to be a valuable one.
The coaching staff and players have been preaching since the Texas game that the Tar Heels need to get better on assignments and alignments. It has been the focus of practice.
"That's something we worked real hard on last week," defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable lamented. "We had too many missed tackles in the Texas game – we tackled very poorly. And, we had some missed assignments from an alignment standpoint. When you have those missed assignments from an alignment, it's hard to play the defense and give the defense a chance to be successful."
Safety Chris Curry said, "It (the defensive problem against Texas) was a lot of missed tackles and a lot of missed assignments. When you do that, you can't win football games. When you aren't lined up right, they are going to get yards."
Cornerback Kevin Knight has also heard that sermon repeated constantly since the Texas game.
"It wasn't about how they (Texas) were bigger or stronger than we are," he said. "It was about alignment and assignments."
Getting the defense aligned properly falls largely on the young shoulders of middle linebacker Doug Justice. He understands he has some work to do in that area.
"It is a big responsibility," Justice said. "Coach Bunting and Coach Hux have laid it on me to say, ‘you're the leader of that huddle, and you've got to get everybody lined up, got to get everybody the call.' I wasn't doing that as well in the first two games, and even against Texas, I've got to get that more and more."
Justice is not only a first-year starter, he is also a red-shirt freshman. And Justice missed a good bit of fall practice because of several minor injuries, as did several young players on the defense. The lack of continuity impacted the development of the youthful defense.
"I'm not one to make excuses," Huxtable said, "but besides the youth and inexperience, we have had numerous injuries through fall camp and have had a lot of kids miss a lot practice on defense. I think that has hurt us. Doug being a red-shirt freshman, being the guy in that huddle, I think he's worked very hard at it and, I'll be honest with you, I think last week during practice, we worked real hard at our huddle mechanics because I do think that was some of the problem. I don't know how clear and how exact our mechanics were in the huddle, and when everybody was breaking that huddle, that all eleven guys knew the huddle call. So, we worked real hard on the huddle mechanics and that's something that is where good defense starts is in the huddle."
None of the Tar Heels on the defensive side of the ball are pointing fingers. Each unit has shared in the defensive woes this season.
Chase Page said of the defensive line play, "You have to play fast, and the only way you can play fast is to know exactly what you are doing at all times. I think we have some young guys and some guys who haven't played before, and they are going to hesitate a little bit, but I think we'll get better."
Of the linebackers, Justice said, "We are still learning. We are still getting used to the position, being that it is Malcolm [Stewart]'s first year starting there, and my first year, along with our three SAM linebackers."
After the Texas game last year, Bunting challenged his talented wide receiver corps to step up and begin to make plays. He has issued a similar challenge to the secondary, his most experienced unit on defense.
Cornerback Michael Waddell understood the challenge.
"We've got a lot of learning to do. There are no superstars on the team, no standout players. We need to get focused, get lined up right and know the schemes and execute. I think that is what we are lacking right now."
Given the performance against Texas, and the youth and inexperience of the defense, can the Tar Heels get the defense turned around this season?
"We know we have to get better," Justice said. "We have been getting better in practice. We flew around the ball; we are working on fixing our mistakes. I think we are getting used to each other and the communication that needs to happen. More and more we are coming downhill, hitting the ball carrier, we're fitting together and making plays together."
Curry said, "We are working on the fundamentals, making sure we are getting lined up right."
Offensively, the Tar Heels have some issues to resolve, but the question of whether the defense can turn things around -- starting on Saturday -- will ultimately determine the fortunes of the 2002 Tar Heel football team.
"This is a big game," Knight said. "It's our first ACC game. We are at home. This game means a lot. Our goal is to win an ACC Championship, and we have to win this game to get there."
Curry added, "We didn't win the first three games, last year, but you have to take it one game at a time. We have to beat Georgia Tech and then worry about the other games after that."
The Tar Heels begin their conference schedule on Saturday against Georgia Tech coming off the defensive debacle against Texas, but appear to be unshaken and surprisingly confident.
"Everybody is excited and ready to play the first conference game," Curry said. "We are ready for our first conference game at home -- we are ready to play."
Knight shares that confidence, "Our confidence level is high. We haven't lost any confidence. We know we have the talent to stop anybody, especially in the conference. We know we can do it, but it's about going out and doing it."
Defensive tackle Chase Page agreed, "We're pretty confident. I don't think we're down, and I think we can beat most teams. We are really confident going into the Georgia Tech game. That's a tribute to our coaches."
"It's the ACC," Waddell said. "We can forget about the last three games and focus on winning the ACC championship."
To get there, the North Carolina defense will have to experience the same type of turnaround that last year's offense made after the Texas game last year. The questions are many, and the answers will come beginning Saturday against Georgia Tech.