UNC defense faces another tough running man challenge

UNC has already gone up against Georgias Nick Chubb and Pittsburghs James Conner in its first four games. Saturday, the Tar Heels face their biggest defensive challenge in trying to stop Florida States Dalvin Cook

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner (24) runs the ball in the second quarter of the college football game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill

CHAPEL HILL — It never seems to matter where a baseball manager tries to hide the weakest fielder in his lineup. Somehow, the ball always manages to find him. North Carolina is the college football version of that theory. It’s well-documented how mightily the Tar Heels struggle defending the run. They ranked 121st in the nation last season with an average of 247 yards allowed per game and things haven’t gotten any better this year. So naturally, “the ball” is going to find them. Or in the case, it’s some of the nation’s best running backs. UNC has already had to go up against Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Pittsburgh’s James Conner in its first four games. Saturday, the Tar Heels will face their biggest defensive challenge in trying to stop Florida State’s Heisman Trophy candidate Dalvin Cook. “It comes down to the Jimmys and the Joes, and we’re facing some pretty good running backs,” coach Larry Fedora said. “But what do you say? You’re facing them. You’ve got to get it done. You can’t just sit there and say ‘we’re going to give it up.’ You have to find a way to limit Dalvin. There are some that will tell you he’s the best in the country at running back. It makes it difficult.” After getting burned for 222 yards by Chubb in the season opener, UNC’s much-maligned defense actually did a decent job of containing Conner last week. It was his Pitt teammate Quadree Henderson that did most of the damage with 107 yards on just nine carries, mostly jet sweeps. Cook, however, presents an even greater challenge in that he combines both the power to run between the tackles and the speed to get outside and beat everyone on the field to the end zone. The 5-foot-11, 213-pound junior showed the full range of his ability in last week’s win against South Florida by rushing for 267 yards and two touchdowns while also catching four passes for another 62 yards. “He’s powerful when he needs to be powerful,” UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. “He’s very fast when he gets into the open field and he’s got great vision and makes very elusive, quick cuts.” So how can the Tar Heels stop him? Other than keeping him off the field and putting up a big number offensively, goals that will require them to possess the ball for more than the paltry 19 minutes they had it last week against Pitt, the only option is to put a lot of obstacles in Cook’s path every time he touches the ball. “We’ve just got to get a lot of guys to the ball and know that the first guy is not responsible for the tackle,” senior cornerback Des Lawrence said. “It’s everybody else’s job to get there and make sure the tackle is secure. We just have to get a lot of hats to the ball.” UNC’s defense showed it has the capability of doing that last week when it forced three straight three-and-outs against Pitt to help give its high-powered offense a chance to win the game at the end. That was an encouraging sign as far as a hopeful Fedora is concerned. “We’ve got to do a much better job of limiting the run, but as long as we score one more point than they do we’ve got something to build on,” he said. “The last three series’ of the game tells me it can be fixed, there’s no doubt about that.” One thing that’s certain is that until the Tar Heels prove they can stop the run, opposing teams are going to continue to pound away at them on the ground. “It’s another situation, like Georgia, where they try to get the run game going early, just like any team would,” senior tackle Nazair Jones said. “People are definitely going to try us. If I was a coach in that situation, i would try that as well. But that’s just a chance for our defense to step up and make plays, and prove to ourselves and the country that we can get the job done.”