When Notre Dame rolled up 472 total yards on UNC 16 days ago, most observers were scratching their heads trying to figure out what had happened to a Tar Heel defense that ranked in the top-40 in 2007. But hidden beneath that massive yardage was a sign that has resonated in the past two weeks – a dominant run defense.
The Irish gained 89 yards on 30 carries, and North Carolina continued to improve in that area against Virginia (58 yards on 27 carries) and Boston College (40 yards on 21 carries). In all, UNC’s last three opponents have rushed for 187 yards on a 2.4 yards per carry average, which helps explain the Cavaliers and Eagles only being able to manage 519 total combined yards of offense.
For a historical comparison, North Carolina allowed eight different teams to eclipse the 500-yard mark on their own in 2003.
“I think [the run defense has] performed well, but you can’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’re just suffocating everybody to death,” Davis said. “Obviously, Boston College and Virginia threw the ball a lot. Maybe not so much for a lot of yards in relationship to the number of attempts, but I think a lot of times how your defense performs is how they play on 1st and 10, and I think that’s been one of the real strengths of our defense the last couple of weeks.”
The stats back up those claims. Boston College picked up five yards or more on 10 of its 28 first-down chances, while also coughing up two interceptions and a sack. Virginia gained over four yards on just seven of its 27 first-down opportunities, and four of those came on the final drive of regulation.
Davis also indicated that the offense was improving its ability to sustain drives in late-game situations.
“You talk about your five-minute offense, where you’ve got a lead and you know that you don’t want to give the ball back,” Davis said.
That theory did not pan out against Virginia Tech, as North Carolina chewed up only 6 minutes and 34 seconds on its four drives after taking a 17-3 lead late in the third quarter. In contrast, UNC drained 7 minutes and 29 seconds in one fourth-quarter drive at Virginia, and wasted 6 minutes and 1 second on one series in the final stanza against Boston College.
With a 6-2 record under their belts and a bye week on the horizon, the Tar Heels are ready to use the available downtime to get healthy.
“This has been a long, grueling season thus far for these kids, and I really, truly value their effort in how hard they worked at doing the things we’ve asked them to do, not only physically in practice, but certainly in preparation,” Davis said.
North Carolina did not practice on Sunday and was scheduled to be off on Monday before returning to Navy Field for sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with a split focus on Georgia Tech and self-improvement.
“The underlying thing is to try to get guys well and for us to try to make some strides for a big push in these final four weeks,” Davis said.
Quarterback T.J. Yates is nearing the end of his anticipated six-week recovery period, but Davis does not expect his red-shirt sophomore signal caller to be under center during practice this week.
“I think he's coming out this week to just lightly do some throwing, maybe some individual routes,” Davis said. “Maybe at the end of the week, there's been discussion, but no full authority from the medical people, to say that he might even participate in some 7-on-7 where there's no rush and you don't have to move around in the pocket."
Another player that is making progress on the injury front is tight end Zack Pianalto, who suffered a sprained ankle against Notre Dame. The sophomore is out of his boot, and while Davis admitted to having “guarded optimism” about Pianalto’s ability to play against Georgia Tech on Nov. 8, the head coach was not able to confirm his player’s availability.