North Carolina (5-1, 1-1 ACC) has faced five Bowl Championship Series opponents this season, and has trailed following the opening possessions for both teams in all but one of those contests. Oddly enough, the only time UNC has scored first against a Division I-A opponent was in its loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 20.
“It’s something obviously that we take a look at and we try to get off to as a good a start as possible, and we’ll continue to work on it,” Davis told reporters during his Sunday afternoon teleconference.
This problem falls equally on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, the Tar Heels have gained just two first downs in six game-opening opportunities. They were relegated to three-and-outs against McNeese State (six yards), Rutgers (four yards), Connecticut (seven yards) and Notre Dame (three yards).
The other two performances were better, if only marginally. UNC gained 23 yards and a first down in five plays against Virginia Tech, before picking up 14 yards and a first down in six plays at Miami.
In all, North Carolina has totaled 57 yards in 23 plays – and no points – during its opening possessions, resulting in a 3.8-play, 9.5-yard average per contest.
Things have been quite different for the opposition. Only FCS member McNeese State failed to gain more than one first down on its opening drive, but the Cowboys still managed 36 yards on six plays.
Rutgers, Miami, Connecticut and Notre Dame all sustained scoring drives of eight plays or longer, combining for 18 first downs along the way. Strangely enough, Virginia Tech was once again the exception in this study, tallying just 23 yards on five plays.
The past three games have been especially troubling from a defensive standpoint. Miami (4 passes, 4 runs) and Connecticut (6 passes, 7 runs) utilized a balanced offensive approach in gaining 89 and 63 yards per drive, respectively. Notre Dame was content to throw the ball every down with an empty set, as Jimmy Clausen attempted nine passes while scrambling for yards on two other plays.
But while Davis was unwilling to dive into the specifics of the season-long issues, he did provide some insight into Notre Dame’s early offensive success.
“They came out and kind of got us out of rhythm because it clearly was not the way they had opened any game this entire season and any game last season,” Davis said. “They were trying to spread the field by going to a no-huddle offense [which] keeps you out of substitution groups. That’s one of the things you can accomplish by going to a no huddle, is that you don’t allow people to get into nickel and dime [packages]…
“I will say this – we had two chances in that first drive to totally negate that first drive. We dropped two opportunities to get interceptions, and I think had we gotten those interceptions early before they had even gotten their first touchdown, it’s really conceivable that we might not have seen that [scheme] again.”
North Carolina’s six opponents have combined for 349 total yards and 21 first downs in 52 plays – and 20 points – during their opening possessions, resulting in a 8.7-play, 58.2-yard average per contest.
In the end, the only statistic that truly matters is the one found on the scoreboard after the game clock expires, and the Tar Heels have won that battle five times this season. But North Carolina cannot afford to consistently fall behind in the early going of its remaining six contests, especially if the end goal continues to be a trip to Tampa for the ACC Championship game.
Senior wide receiver/returner Brandon Tate (sprained right knee) and sophomore tight end Zack Pianalto (sprained right ankle) left Saturday’s game due to their respective injuries, but Davis was unable to provide much of an update on Sunday afternoon.
“[Tate’s] MRI was scheduled for 5 p.m. this afternoon, so he’s in there and he’ll probably get out somewhere around 6:30 p.m. or so,” Davis said. “And then we’ll know a lot better. Rather than speculate on what might be or whatever, it’ll be a lot easier to just tell everybody tomorrow the extent of it, because we really don’t know right now.”
Davis did not comment on Pianalto’s injury.
Tate (163.7 all-purpose yards per game ranked third nationally) was gang tackled by several Irish players while returning Notre Dame’s first punt of the game for nine yards with 5:40 remaining in the first quarter.
Pianalto (six catches for 61 yards on the season) was injured during Shaun Draugh’s 35-yard touchdown run
that was called back due to a holding penalty on North Carolina’s final drive of the third quarter.