Ready or not, Tar Heels begin defense of Coastal Division crown

While UNCs offense has already begun the process of finding its identity, things havent come along as quickly on defense, where the Tar Heels continue to struggle against the run

Bob Donnan—USA Today Sports
Sep 17

CHAPEL HILL — Ready or not, the North Carolina football team will begin defense of its ACC Coastal Division title on Saturday in its conference opener against Pittsburgh at Kenan Stadium. As for whether the Tar Heels really are ready for the challenge after three nonconference warmups, not even they seem to know to sure. “I think we’re still figuring out who we are,” junior safety Donnie Miles, the team’s leading tackler, said Monday. “This isn’t the team from last year. I think getting this win this week would be a big step towards what we want to accomplish.” UNC’s offense has already begun the process of finding its identity in the two games since a disappointing opening night loss to Georgia in Atlanta. The Tar Heels were especially effective in last Saturday’s 56-28 victory against James Madison, a game in which quarterback Mitch Trubisky completed 24 of 27 passes for 432 yards and three touchdowns while running back Elijah Hood posted his first 100-yard effort of the year. Things haven’t come along as quickly on defense, where despite some second half improvement against the Dukes, UNC continues to struggle against the run. The Tar Heels are allowing an average of 226.7 yards per game on the ground. Some of those difficulties can be attributed to injuries that have decimated an already thin front. Though tackle Nazair Jones is back after missing last week with a concussion and end Tyler Powell figures to be sharper now that he has a game under his belt, the Tar Heels are still shorthanded on the line with Dajaun Drennon still not listed on the depth chart and freshman Tomon Fox out indefinitely with a knee injury. Their absence only makes the task at hand more difficult against a Pittsburgh attack that features two 1,000-yard rushers — 2014 ACC Player of the Year James Conner and 2015 Rookie of the Year Quadree Ollison. “We know if we don’t stop the run it’s going to be a long day and it’s going to be extremely difficult,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “I shouldn’t stay stop the run, because I don’t know that anybody just stops it. But we’ve got to slow them down. We’d love to be somewhere around 75 percent less than what their average is. If we do that, we feel like we’ll be having some success.” The Panthers (2-1) are averaging 239 yards per game on the ground thus far. In addition to improvement, especially among a young linebacking corps Fedora said has lacked “physicality,” the Tar Heels can enhance their chances against Pitt by being more disciplined. They were called for five unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against JMU on Saturday. Trubisky and the offense can also do their part by putting up a big number — either on the scoreboard, in the time of possession column or both. “Every time we have the ball it’s crucial to convert third downs and keep drives going and keep our defense off the field,” Trubisky said. “But at the same time we’re going to try to score as fast as we can in this fast tempo offense. “We’re not worried about our defense. We know they’re going to fix the mistakes they made last week. It’s all about the have each other’s back mentality. Either eat up a lot of clock and have their rest on the sideline or score fast to where they don’t have as much pressure on them … we just need to play a complete game as a team.” That’s something the Tar Heels have yet to do this season. There’s no better time for it to happen, Fedora said, than in UNC’s ACC opener against an opponent the coach described as the best his team has faced to date.”We’re entering Coastal Division play now and all of our goals are in play for the rest of the season,” Fedora said. “This is a big game because it’s the next game, but it’s a big game against a Divisional opponent.”