"We put the ball on the ground way too many times," head coach Butch Davis told reporters at the Kenan Football Center while discussing the Rutgers game film. "Some that we actually lost and some that we didn't lose. So our ball security has dramatically got to get better."
Tailback Johnny White started the fumble theme just 20 seconds into Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against LSU, and then tight end Ryan Taylor nearly cost his team the lead on Saturday by having the ball knocked away at the goal line as the Tar Heels trailed 10-7 midway through the third quarter. An official review ultimately upheld the ruling on the field, giving UNC a 14-10 lead.
"It's killing our drives," quarterback T.J. Yates said. "I think we're doing a really good job of moving the ball up and down the field, but just whenever we get into their territory or whenever we start off a drive and fumble, it just kills our momentum."
But while turnovers never help – UNC's even turnover margin is tied for sixth in the ACC and tied for 52nd nationally – there are other issues surrounding Shoop's fourth unit as offensive coordinator. His first three seasons in Chapel Hill resulted in total offense rankings of 105th, 92nd and 108th, respectively, and there have been plenty of legitimate excuses along the way – injuries, youth and inexperience.
This season, however, North Carolina's offense boasts 195 total starts and stands relatively intact, with only wide receiver Greg Little and tailback Ryan Houston sidelined due to their involvement in the ongoing NCAA investigation. Add that to the knowledge that this offense needed to assume the workload for the first time in three years to keep this season's dreams afloat, and the amount of pressure on Shoop's shoulders is understandably intense.
But the results haven't been as strong as many Tar Heel fans had hoped for. Despite a passing offense that ranks 24th nationally (275.0 ypg), the ground game is only churning out 86.0 yards per game (109th). North Carolina ranks 73rd nationally in total offense (361.0 ypg) and is scoring 21.7 points per contest, good for 88th nationally and 11th in the ACC.
One of the problems is UNC's notorious slow starts. North Carolina has been outscored 31-10 in the first quarter this year after being outscored in the opening stanza in two of the previous three seasons.
"We've got to convert on [third] down," Yates said of the first quarter issues. "We've got to convert those field goals that we're having into touchdowns. I think it was the Georgia Tech game that we got shut out pretty close to the goal line and had to kick a short field goal instead of having a touchdown. It's just coming out on our first drive and trying to set the tone."
Another concern has been a failure to close out ball games. After a strong fourth-quarter performance against LSU that fell six yards short, UNC has scored just three points in the final 15 minutes the past two weeks.
Against Rutgers, the Tar Heels could have increased their lead to eight points after Shaun Draughn's 19-yard run gave the offense a first down in the red zone, but UNC had to settle for a field goal. And then following safety Matt Merletti's interception on his own six-yard line with 2:42 left in regulation, the offense posted a dreaded three-and-out, thanks to a questionable reverse call on 3rd-and-2.
As a result, the offense had to rely on an inexperienced defense missing six starters and several key backups to make not one, but two critical stops deep in UNC territory in the closing minutes to secure victory.
Yates, of course, has been the bright spot all season long, completing 68 of his 100 passes for 825 yards, five touchdowns with only one interception, but Saturday's victory marked just the sixth time in 18 games that the fifth-year senior has won a game decided by a touchdown or less.
Fortunately, Yates has been wildly successful in his two previous games against East Carolina – completing 39-of-56 passing for 571 yards, five touchdowns and one interception – and even he admits that the Pirates's 119th-ranked passing defense (303.3 ypg) has him looking forward to Saturday's rivalry contest.
"It's hard not to look at the stats going into the game," Yates said. "… We know we're going to have to score some points. They have a powerful offense over there, too, so we're going to try our best to keep putting points on the board."
East Carolina counters with the nation's ninth-best scoring machine, averaging 42.3 points per game. As well as North Carolina's defense has played this season, the young secondary is likely to give up some big plays in the passing game.
The Tar Heel defense has carried this offense for the better part of three seasons. It's time for Shoop and Co. to return the favor.