Georgia Tech ran 72 offensive plays on Saturday, 20 more than North Carolina. The Tar Heels drove 63 yards in eight plays on their first possession for a touchdown, but the Yellow Jackets seized control of the game due to UNC's offensive ineffectiveness during the remainder of the first half.
In its next five drives – not including its final play with six seconds left before halftime – North Carolina gained just 21 yards and one first down on 16 plays. The six first-down plays broke down like this – 2 yards, 0, (-3), 2, 0 (false start), 3. The corresponding second-down plays were only marginally better – 15, 3, 2, 0, 5, interception.
The result was four 3rd-and-long opportunities that all failed. UNC converted 3-of-8 third downs against Georgia Tech, all of which were third-and-long and obvious passing downs. The Yellow Jackets, on the other hand, converted 10-of-16 third down attempts. The key difference being that Tech had eight 3rd-and-short or 3rd-and-middle chances and capitalized with first-down runs on all eight.
When asked what North Carolina needed to do better on first and second downs, Withers was again direct and to the point.
"Stay on schedule," Withers said. "Get three, get four, get yourself in 3rd-and-3 and then people don't blitz you nearly as much."
Renner delivered similar intel without providing specifics.
"Always gaining positive yards on first and second down is a big thing," Renner said. "Obviously, we want to gain as many yards as possible, but on first and second down, just really taking pride and getting at least half of the 10 yards is a big key that we're going to work on this week."
Part of the blame falls on the red-shirt sophomore's shoulders. Five sacks on first or second down – including four critical losses as UNC's attempted to tie the score in the final five minutes – put the Tar Heels in near impossible 3rd-and-long situation, while a pair of interceptions prevented third down opportunities.
"I definitely put the team in some bad situations by taking those sacks," Renner said. "The responsibility falls on me to get the ball out of my hands. That's what I really noticed on film. I just need to get rid of the ball sometimes."
Offensive coordinator John Shoop also bears a portion of the blame. Trends and tendencies allow defenses to make educated guesses on what opposing offenses will run on first and second downs.
North Carolina's defensive players are given a weekly scouting report that details the opponent's play-calling during its previous three games, as well as looking back over the past year or two. UNC uses those percentages during practice each week and bases its first call on defense off those odds.
UNC defensive end Quinton Coples also provided some insight as to how much simpler his approach is on 3rd-and-long versus 3rd-and-short.
"I'm going to attack in pass rush on 3rd-and-8," Coples said. "On 3rd-and-3, I'm going to attack run and convert to pass. Just play run, because you never know, and then convert to pass after that when you see pass."
With East Carolina's aerial assault on tap for Saturday – the Pirates have thrown 136 passes against 76 rushes this season – Withers told reporters that his emphasis will remain the same with regards to sustaining drives offensively.
"You're trying to keep their offense off the field because they do have big-play potential," Withers said. "It's a little bit more of a high-risk offense, but they think of it as high risk, high reward. So we've got to keep them off the field. We've got to sustain drives. You can't be in the 3rd-and-7-plus as much as we were in last week and expect your quarterback and your protection to hold up.
"As a defensive coach, I loved people in 3rd-and-7-plus because I can draw up a lot of different stuff to come get you on 3rd-and-7-plus as opposed to 3rd-and-2."
The good news for North Carolina is that East Carolina ranks 97th nationally in third-down percentage defense (46.51). The bad news is that the Pirates are only one spot behind Georgia Tech (96th, 46.43) in that ranking, which highlights the importance of creating a 3rd-and-short situation instead of 3rd-and-forever.