It appeared as though offensive coordinator John Shoop's unit was poised for a breakout performance against rival N.C. State last weekend, as the Wolfpack's defense was surrendering 400 yards of total offense per contest. But the ground game never materialized, and unfortunately for the Tar Heels, Georgia Tech's defense is ranked 60 spots higher than their neighbors in Raleigh at No. 6 nationally (293 yards per game).
"Their defense right now is playing as well as any defense in the country…" head coach Butch Davis said during his weekly Monday press conference. "They're very aggressive, very opportunistic. They've been together for a long, long time. All those kids – you can just imagine when you've got 18 juniors and seniors, how many games they've been in, how many practices, how many spring practices [and] how much film they've looked at."
Tar Heel fans remember the Rambling Wreck's defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta from his time serving the same role under John Bunting in 2001. UNC led the ACC in total defense and passing defense under Tenuta's watch, and in his sixth season working with head coach Chan Gailey, the Yellow Jackets have become the definition of a blitzing defense.
"[It's] just the variety of the blitzes that they bring," senior center Scott Lenahan said. "And not only that, but also how much they bring them. They blitz up to 55 times in a game, which is a lot of blitzes. You know you've got your work cut out for you, and you definitely have got to keep your head on a swivel [and] keep your eyes up and looking around."
With the Tar Heel ground game slowing to a crawl (93.7 yards per game is 108th nationally), opposing defenses have taken advantage by attacking red-shirt freshman quarterback T.J. Yates (2297 yards, 12 touchdowns, 16 interceptions). That strategy worked well for the Wolfpack as they tallied two sacks and nine quarterback hits in their 31-27 victory on Saturday.
"[We have] to try to put T.J. in more of a comfortable situation to where he can operate and not necessarily maybe be under as much duress and pressure," Davis said. "That, I think, will enhance his decision-making ability and will allow him to be much, much more efficient."
That begins with a more effective rushing attack – something that has shown glimpses of promise for the Heels, but has yet to even approach marginal success in recent weeks. Johnny White and Anthony Elzy combined for 20 yards on 12 carries against N.C. State, and the offense as a whole has only generated 937 total rushing yards on a 2.8 yards per carry average for the entire season.
But to be fair to running backs coach Kenny Browning's group, North Carolina has fallen behind by double-digits early in numerous games this fall, forcing Yates to try to throw his offense down the field. Negative plays also hurt, forcing a lot of passing downs early in a series, which makes it tough to convert those vital third downs. On the season, the Tar Heels rank 110th nationally in third-down conversions (30.4 percent).
"When you look at your third-down conversions, that tells you the story of what happened on first and second down – you didn't run the ball very well, your play action wasn't working very good, and so you have a lot of third down and seven, eight, nine…" Davis said. "So is it the chicken or the egg? Which one came first? Did you fail at running or did you just not have opportunities to run the ball?"
Regardless, Davis indicated that his team's spirits were up and running after the difficult loss to their in-state rival and he believes they will be ready for the challenge that Tenuta's defense will surely provide on Saturday. After all, with so many underclassmen played a pivotal role for the Tar Heels, these final two games work well as live action preseason contests for the 2008 campaign.
"Every single time that we practice, and every single time that we play is an opportunity for this football program to grow and get better," Davis said. "That can't get lost in sight of the fact that the season is dwindling down and there's two games left. For 95 percent of these guys on this football team, their football careers are actually just getting started as opposed to dwindling down."