Let's cut right to it, the defense is horrible beyond words.
Yes it is. Heel to the End noted in the comments section that is was the worst defense he had seen played on any level of football. I almost have to agree with him, which is really saying something since I went to South Johnston High School. The defense was beyond words awful. It was not just Georgia Tech scored on every drive but two. It was not even the Jackets converting 3rd downs at ease. It was the complete balance in which Georgia Tech took UNC apart. This was, more or less, like watching a game of Madden where one team has all the attributes set to 99 and the other team doesn't. While not every play Georgia Tech ran worked it felt like it did. Not only did they work but usually for copious yards. The phrase "Georgia Tech did anything they wanted" is actually an understatement of sorts. The only way the Yellow Jackets were not going to score is because they chose not to or someone did something stupid like throw a pick six or drop a pass. UNC defenders were just 11 bystanders on the field or so it seemed.
So who is to blame for this debacle?
Good question, I wrote on Saturday that a failure of this magnitude really falls on everyone and everything. The coaches are at fault. The players are at fault. The scheme is garbage and quite possiblly the turf at Kenan Stadium. The problem with blaming everyone and everything is that doesn't provide a solution. Something clearly has to change unless it is simply a function of it being the first season with a new scheme at which point you hope Virginia and Maryland play putrid on the offensive end to close out the season. Since that is not the best option, let's take a look at the individual parts.
Anyone who is a long time reader of THB know that I am loathed to cast too many aspersions on players, especially when it comes to talking about less than tangible things like effort, intensity and focus. The good news here is I don't think any of those aspects are in question. I have no doubt, UNC defensive players are doing everything they can to stop opposing teams. That being said, I do wonder if they either don't have a grasp of the defense and lack an understanding of what they are supposed to be doing out there. Over and over from Rick Steinbacher on the Tar Heel Sports Network to TV to media folks on Twitter and yes even the players themselves I hear "missed assignments" given as the reason for UNC's many defensive failings. The general consensus seems to be that UNC defensive players are simply not where they need to be or are executing poorly. A close second behind "missed assignments" is "missed tackles" as the Tar Heels have been wholly incapable of wrapping up opposing players and stopping plays before they do serious damage.
Now, we should be clear about one thing. I am hard pressed to believe UNC lacks the talent on the defensive side of the ball to stop opposing teams. Butch Davis was known for many things and recruiting talented players is one of them. You could argue he didn't quite know what to do when they showed up but there isn't much argument the players Davis brought in were likely talented enough to be successful. Unfortunately it simply isn't showing up since they have trouble doing the most basic thing a defensive player is asked to do and that is tackle the guy with the football. They also appear to be struggling with knowing where they should be on the field which could mean a lack of football IQ but also could mean the scheme and coaching is at fault.
UNC plays a 4-2-5 which is considered a novelty defense of sorts and has its share of backers and critics. Larry Fedora favors it because it provides a level of versatility since it employs two hybrid positions in the Ram and Bandit. He also believe in being aggressive and forcing turnovers which is far more opportunistic than is healthy for a solid defense. At this point, Fedora is going to be hard pressed to find anyone among the Tar Heel fan base who doesn't think the scheme is complete crap. That assertion is going to find a lot of backing in this piece from IC's Greg Barnes which basically says Fedora's teams have always fallen short on defense. The primary culprit? A dependency on turnovers as opposed to good ol' stops on third down and what not.
In other words, it is not the scheme as much as it is the intention. If the point is to attack and force turnovers then there is a good chance assignments will be missed and gaps open all over the field. That doesn't explain the tackling issues but it certainly does give us a clue as to why perhaps assignments get missed. Players are trying to do too much in an effort to fulfill Fedora's stated goal of being aggressive and forcing opposing teams to make mistakes. The problem is Georgia Tech didn't make mistakes except for one interception Tim Scott returned for a touchdown. Against NC State, the Wolfpack obliged with their share of miscues and UNC got one big defensive play in Kevin Reddick's sack of Mike Glennon that set off the chain of events leading to Giovani Bernard's punt return. If a team plays a clean offensive game, UNC is really sort of screwed because the Heels don't seem to be able to make conventional stops adequately enough.
In essence while the players and the scheme certainly play a big part in UNC's inability to stop a runny nose, in the end the coaches own all of this. Granted the coaches can't tackle for anyone and I don't think players are being coached to screw up their assignments. However, I do think questions about whether the players fit the scheme and whether everyone is being utilized in the right way are legitimate. Most of the players UNC has were not recruited to play in a 4-2-5 so the change to a new scheme is a shock to the system. More than that, you have to wonder things like is the scheme too complicated with little time to truly internalize it? Are there issues with the fact UNC has essentially two defensive coordinators? Dan Disch is the defensive coordinator and Vic Koenning the associate head coach for defense. Who is calling the shots on game day? Are the conflicts between the two on how things should be done leading to confusion for the players? Koenning came to UNC with the reputation of being a top-notched defensive coordinator. It was a home run hire hailed by most as a crucial move that would give UNC a solid defense to go with the points happy offense.
However, Fedora also decided to bring his defensive coordinator from Southern Miss with him to Chapel Hill in the person of Dan Disch. This move birthed the two-headed monster running the Tar Heel defense. The issue? Disch and Koenning have history and it isn't all that rosy. From 2005-2009, Disch was an assistant coach at Illinois and from 2007-2009 held the position of Co-Defensive Coordinator and Linebacker Coach. In 2010, Disch lost his co-DC title but remained the linebacker coach. Who replaced Disch at defensive coordinator? Koenning did having been hired from Kansas State by head coach Ron Zook. Disch ended up leaving a year later to become defensive coordinator at Southern Miss under Fedora whom he knew from when they both were on staff at Florida.
Basically, Disch lost his co-DC title when Zook demoted him and brought in Koenning. To do my best Dan Kane impersonation, I am not saying, I'm just saying. I don't have any inside information about the relationship between the coaches under Fedora so this is really nothing more than an interesting footnote. If the defense had not been performing in such an abysmal manner all season, said footnote would not matter. Since it has to the point of giving up 68 points in one game, everything gets placed on the table, including potential chemistry issues on the coaching staff.
So what's the answer?
I am sad to say what after 1300+ words I don't really have one. Despite what fans may think, in college football, coaches rarely get fired in a head coach's first season with two games left. I know fans love to call for coaches to be fired(as though that would solve anything) but heads will roll. Fedora saves that care for year three or four if the program is stuck in neutral. I also would not expect the scheme to change because the worst thing you can do with a group of players who openly admit they don't understand their assignments is change the system.
The answer at this stage is to ride the bad defense out and plead like mad for improvement next season. UNC has two games left and the only real hope for the Tar Heels defense is for Virginia and Maryland to both commit egregious errors, preferably resulting in UNC scoring points. Absent that, I think the fear that Maryland fifth string quarterback might throw for five touchdowns and run for two more is legitimate.