"(Scoring touchdowns in the red zone) was a point of emphasis in the offseason," offensive lineman James Hurst said. "Last year we did have some trouble with that. We had some spurts where we kicked field goals every time we were down there. We've worked on that, on our jumbo and goal-line package, and I think we've improved this year."
North Carolina's red zone success hasn't been a one-game phenomenon. So far this season, the Tar Heels have taken 11 trips into the red zone, and have scored nine touchdowns – without being forced to settle for a field goal from inside that territory through three games. Contrast that number to the 2010 season, when UNC scored in the red zone 90 percent of the time, but 46 percent of which were kick field goals.
What's been the difference so far this year?
"Mindset," interim head coach Everett Withers said. "Mindset. As a defensive coach, again, you're always trying to get people to kick field goals in the red zone. If you're giving up touchdowns in the red zone, that's something that takes a little bit out of your emotion on defense."
Mentally the Tar Heels may be more adept inside the red zone this year, but, like Hurst, quarterback Bryn Renner credits the practice that the offense has invested in it.
"We worked on it relentlessly in the summer, " quarterback Bryn Renner said. "I mean that was the one thing we really focused on: Casey (Barth) kicked too many field goals. Coach Shoop and Coach Withers have been saying the whole time: we really need to score in the red zone, and capitalize when we have the opportunity.
"We've really been (focusing) on that lately, and even in 7-on-7 drills in the summer we would just go to the red zone and stay there 20 minutes and just work on plays to score every time we are in there."
Wide receiver Dwight Jones singled out one particular group of Tar Heels for the increased efficiency in the red zone.
"It would have to be the O-line," Jones said. "They're a veteran group and they take pride in blocking for the running backs and making sure we score in the red zone. I have to give the props to the O-line."
Regardless of the reasons why, the Tar Heels were balanced and efficient in the red zone on Saturday, scoring on touchdown passes of 18 yards from Bryn Renner to Jhay Boyd, a 17-yard Renner pass to Dwight Jones, and Ryan Houston runs of one and two yards. As already noted, only a bungled snap at the two-yard line prevented the Heels from going 5-of-5 inside their twenty.
The Tar Heels are now 3-0, their best start since 1997, and touchdown efficiency inside the red zone is a big reason why.