One of UNC's two failed conversions occurred at the end of the season-opening loss to LSU when tight end Zack Pianalto couldn't hold onto a third-down pass as the game clock expired. The other took place on the opening drive of the second half against East Carolina when Casey Barth missed a 37-yard field goal wide right.
Of course, it helps when your starting quarterback has thrown 11 touchdowns against one interception and ranks 25th nationally in passing efficiency (154.33). Fifth-year senior T.J. Yates (121-of-182 passing, 1,495 yards, 66.5 completion rate) is in contention for first-team All-ACC honors at the halfway point of the season.
"Any time you're having success, a certain amount of the credit certainly has to go to the quarterback," UNC head coach Butch Davis told reporters during Monday's press conference. "I think if there was one defining thing about T.J. Yates this year, it's that he's been pretty smart with the football."
Yates pointed to offseason adjustments for the offense's vast improvement after scoring just 21 touchdowns in 43 red zone trips in '09.
"We did a lot of work this offseason focusing on it, especially our red zone passing game," Yates said. "We researched it and found some new schemes, stuff we haven't been doing in the past, and we practiced it all offseason because we knew that was a big hole in our offense."
Part of UNC's strength in the red zone comes from avoiding negative plays that can put an offense on its heels.
"That's one of the things that we've really done well – not taking any sacks or penalties while we're down there, and that's allowing us to get closer and closer and not stay in those 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long situations when we get [in the red zone]," Yates said.
One of the benefits of the dominant performance against Virginia on Saturday is that the Tar Heels can learn from their handful of mistakes in the red zone without a loss clouding the meeting room. North Carolina was 6-of-6 inside the 20-yard-line against the Cavaliers, but two penalties prevented the Tar Heels from scoring touchdowns and forced them to settle for field goals instead.
In the second quarter, a holding call on right tackle Brennan Williams on the seven-yard-line pushed UNC back 10 yards and forced a 3rd-and-goal at the 17, and then a personal foul call on Erik Highsmith in the third quarter set up a 2nd-and-22 at the UVa 28. Both series resulted in field goals.
But while North Carolina has avoided those pitfalls for the most part this season, the same cannot be said for its opponents. The Tar Heel defense currently ranks T-4th nationally in red zone defense, allowing opposing offenses to convert just 62 percent of their opportunities (13-of-21). Only six of those 13 scoring drives have resulted in touchdowns.
By contrast, North Carolina has forced seven turnovers in the red zone, while another opportunity ended with a loss of downs. The Tar Heels intercepted three passes against Virginia in the red zone on Saturday.
"In the red zone, it's easier for them to turn the ball over because you don't have much room," sophomore linebacker Kevin Reddick said after the 44-10 victory. "But that was the strong point of our game – the red zone. We had a couple of defensive stops in the red zone. We wanted to get the ball back."
Reddick expanded on those comments on Monday, saying that red zone execution is just a matter of "somebody going out and making a play."
"It's not letting them score, no matter how they got down there," Reddick said. "The object is to keep them from ever getting down there, but if they do, don't let them score."
Two years ago in Miami, North Carolina capitalized twice in the red zone in the final 46 seconds of regulation. Cam Sexton connected with Brooks Foster for a 14-yard touchdown pass to give the Tar Heels a 28-24 lead, and then Trimane Goddard sealed the dramatic victory with an interception of Robert Marve in the back of the end zone as the clock expired.
North Carolina will need to keep the flames burning in the red zone this weekend in order to upset the 25th-ranked Hurricanes and remain in contention for the Coastal Division crown.