Tar Heels hope extra week helps them make the cut against Georgia Tech

In four previous meetings under coach Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels are 0-2 against their Coastal Division rival when holding theadvantage of that extra week of preparation while going 2-0 without a bye

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
North Carolina Tar Heels defensive tackle Nazair Jones (90) and North Carolina Tar Heels linebacker Andre Smith (10) take down Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Nathan Peterman (4) in the second quarter of the college football game at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill

CHAPEL HILL — Conventional wisdom suggests that having a bye week before playing Georgia Tech is an advantage because of the extra time it gives a college football team to prepare for the Yellow Jackets’ confounding triple option offense. Things haven’t worked out quite that way for North Carolina. In four previous meetings under coach Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels are 0-2 against their Coastal Division rival when holding the “advantage” of that extra week of preparation while going 2-0 without a bye. It’s a phenomenon Fedora’s players are at a loss to explain. “I do not have a clue,” defensive tackle Nazair Jones said. “All I know is that this year, this week all we can do is prepare to stop the run.” That’s always been a something of a challenge for UNC, which despite improved defensive performances over the past few games still ranks dead last in the ACC against the run at 202.8 yards allowed per game. The degree of difficulty will only increase on Saturday against a Tech ground attack that is second in the league at 247.6 yards on the ground per game. Against most teams, defending the run can be as simple as “see the ball, pursue the ball, tackle the ball.” But against the Yellow Jackets, who rely heavily on deception to create and exploit mismatches both between the tackles and on the edges, aggressiveness can and usually does end up working against opposing defenses. “Whatever your assignment is, you just have to pay attention for him,” cornerback Des Lawrence said. “You can’t get undisciplined with your eyes because that’s when their big plays come. “It’s not frustrating, it’s just a lot of attention to detail. You don’t see this offense a lot. It’s almost foreign to you, so you have to revamp your thinking about how you’re going to attack this team.” As difficult as it will be for the Tar Heels to keep their discipline and maintain their defensive assignments, there’s another unique aspect of coach Paul Johnson’s offense that provides an even greater concern. Cut blocks. They’re a staple of the triple option philosophy and a nightmare for those responsible for trying to stop it, especially those in the trenches. “Honestly, me personally, I dread it because it’s never a fun time when you’ve got people diving at your ankles all day,” Jones said. “You see it on film with other teams and you really can’t worry about it. “You’ve got to make tackles while people are tackling you. That’s just kind of culture of what you’ve got to do at the defensive line spot. … You’re going to get cut. It’s 100 percent going to happen. All you can do is hop off the ground and try to get to the ball.” In an effort to prepare Jones and his defensive teammates for what they’ll face against the Yellow Jackets on Saturday, Fedora and defensive coordinator Gene Chizik have had their scout team aiming low at the starters — or as Jones put it, “cutting, rolling, grabbing and anything else they can do” — in practice for the past two weeks. But even with all the extra preparation, the drills are still only a reasonable facsimile of the real thing. “There’s no way you can simulate doing it any other way but doing it,” Chizik said. “So we really don’t have a choice. But the guys have handled it well.” If there’s one thing the Tar Heels have going for them it’s that the triple option, while unusual, is not entirely foreign to them. Not only do they play Georgia Tech every season and work on elements of defending it throughout the year, but they also used some of the same principles against Pittsburgh earlier this season because of the Panthers’ frequent use of the jet sweep. Then there’s those two extra practices they got during the bye week which, at least theoretically, should aid in UNC’s preparation. And even that might not be enough. “The players see it once a year,” Fedora said. “It’s like reintroducing it to them each and every year. Now, we try to do things throughout the year to keep it fresh for them, but it’s something that’s totally different. That’s one of the advantages that they have. Your kids never see it except for that one week. Our guys have to do a great job of preparing.” Even if the extra week doesn’t make much of a difference in that preparation, it will help the Tar Heels in at least one area — getting healthy for a stretch run they hope will keep them in contention for a second straight Coastal Division title. Among those injured players expected back in the lineup on Saturday is senior offensive tackle Jon Heck, who