The Tar Heel offense is rolling yet again. Mitch Trubisky had a record-setting performance Saturday against James Madison, and he seems to be getting better with his versatile set of wide receivers each week. Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan are two of the best running backs in the entire league and can change a game in just one play. Three games in, there’s little concern about UNC’s ability to put points on the board.
Still, North Carolina students, alumni, and fans are left with a frustrating defense. The Heels can’t stop the run at all—giving up total rushing yards of 289, 197, and 209 already. Their pass defense is slightly better but is prone to giving up big plays at critical points. They’ve given up at least one touchdown over 50 yards in each game thus far. Last season, an uptick in forced turnovers helped stem some of the defense’s glaring weaknesses. Carolina has forced only two turnovers to start this season.
The defense itself takes a majority of the blame. Defensive line depth is an issue. There have been a lot of penalties, partly due to a lack of discipline. Players have been missing tackles and confusing assignments, leaving opponents wide open for easy completions. The way it’s constructed right now, the defense simply isn’t going to be the class of the conference. But, could the Carolina offense help take away some of the pressure?
One of the features of Coach Fedora’s offense is how quickly they move the ball. They rarely have a long, sustained drive that results in a touchdown. If the Heels are going to score, it’s usually going to be in three minutes or less. In fact, their longest scoring drive is just four minutes and 23 seconds. It’s naturally thrilling and inspiring to have a team that can score at such a speedy pace while remaining efficient, but it doesn’t do the defense any favors.
Take the opening game against Georgia. The Bulldogs had three separate drives over five minutes long that ended in a score (two touchdowns, one field goal). Carolina’s longest scoring drive in that game took a little over two minutes off the clock. The Heels scored two touchdowns in the third quarter, a kickoff return that immediately had the defense back on the field and another scoring drive under two minutes. They wouldn’t score again for the rest of the game, as Georgia wore down the defense.
In the first three games of the season, Carolina has yet to win the time of possession. The largest disparity came in that game against Georgia. The Bulldogs were on the field for just over 38 minutes. It’s no wonder they went on a 19-0 run to close the game; the defense was exhausted. The Heels had the ball around 25 minutes for the last two games, a more comfortable number but one that still leaves the defense on the field a little too much. Even if UNC had more talent, size, and depth on the defense, that’s a tall order to ask for any defensive unit.
Additionally, the defense being on the field too much and giving up long touchdown drives will begin to hurt the offense more and more. UNC can’t afford to waste their offensive possessions, more than other teams because they might not get the ball back for another five or six minutes. For every quick scoring drive, the defense might give up a back-breaking six-minute, 80-yard drive. That puts a lot of pressure on Trubisky and company to score every single time out. Knowing that your defense can’t keep up over four quarters can certainly lead to more risky play and turnovers on the offensive end. Former Tar Heel quarterback Marquise Williams knows all too well the struggles of trying to outgun the opposing team week in and week out.
So, should UNC and Fedora alter their offensive play calling and style to assist the defense? It looks as though some adjustments need to be made, especially considering the run-heavy teams Carolina will face in the ACC. Thankfully, the team has the talent and offensive weapons in place to make tweaks here and there.
Possibly, the running game needs to have the greatest adjustment. Hood and Logan are electric running backs who can bust any play wide open, and they both have had unbelievable scoring runs so far this year. The two need to get better at carving out consistent yardage play after play. Getting tackled at or behind the line has occasionally been a problem for both, and much of Hood’s yard-per-carry average this season has been bolstered by large runs. Against Illinois, taking out his long run of 62 yards, Hood had 14 carries for just 26 yards. The big plays can sometimes make the stats look much better, and the running back duo needs to improve at getting positive yardage on every down.
The other obvious option is for UNC to slow down their play. Going slower counters what Fedora wants to do, and it might hinder the offense’s performance, but doing so might give the defense more rest to make more stops. It’s a tricky thing to implement during a season, yet no one will truly know if it positively or negatively affects the team until it’s attempted.
The Pitt game this weekend will be a benchmark for whether or not the defense can be expected to hold up for the rest of the season. The Panthers dominate time of possession with a steady, bruising running game, and their passing game is decent enough to typically keep them in games (see their close loss to Oklahoma State this past weekend). If the UNC defense stays on the field for 35 to 40 minutes, they will wear down, and James Conner will eventually break them down completely. Trubisky, Hood, Logan, and everybody else have to score and take time off of the clock for the defense to have a chance at containing Conner and Pitt over four quarters.
It’s a bizarre problem to have—one that other teams like Oregon, Texas Tech, and Baylor continually wrestle with—and Fedora and the staff have to be tactically smart at fine-tuning their offense. Big plays are a crucial part of UNC’s attack, and it’s difficult to limit those bombs to Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer. All of this could be moot, and the defense might be too mediocre for even a few extra minutes of rest to ultimately matter. Whatever the case, the balance between offense and defense is crucial to North Carolina having a successful ACC season.