Greg: Going for Broke

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There's no doubt Everett Withers was thrown into a borderline impossible situation as UNC's interim head coach in late July, but with two division defeats already in the loss column, he may take himself out of the running for the permanent job without a change in philosophy.

Status quo.

That's the path Withers elected to travel once Butch Davis was fired and he ascended to the top of the UNC coaching staff. But while Davis was content to slowly build his roster to maximize his schemes, Withers hasn't been afforded that luxury.

He took the job knowing that he already had two strikes against him. One, he was Davis's defensive coordinator and his current coaching staff was Davis's staff. The fact that Chancellor Holden Thorp dismissed Davis for bringing a NCAA investigation to Chapel Hill suggests that the school would have no problem in wiping the slate clean and starting fresh in the spring.

Secondly, Lawrence "Bubba" Cunningham was announced as North Carolina's new athletic director on Friday and his first job assignment will be to name the permanent head football coach.

That decision will go a long way in building Cunningham's reputation – for better or worse – around campus and throughout the ACC. Does he bring in his own guy or does he keep an interim coach with ties to the NCAA mess that UNC so desperately wants to get past?

The only option for Withers has been, and continues to be, to post a record that Cunningham simply cannot ignore. He has to win, and he has to win now.

Withers shot down the notion of feeling any added pressure with Cunningham in the stands during Saturday's 30-24 loss to Miami during his postgame interview. When asked a similar question on Monday, he said he hadn't thought about the game in terms of it being a missed opportunity to impress UNC's new athletic director, adding that Cunningham told him after the game, "Damn, we had a chance to win it at the end, didn't we?"

The problem is that the final score was not indicative as to how the game was played.

When Clemson fell behind Maryland, 35-17, in the third quarter on Saturday night, everyone watching knew the Tigers had enough firepower in Chad Morris's offense to come back. When UNC fell behind 27-3 in this first half against Miami, sportswriters in the press box started their game stories and were nearly done by the time the second half kicked off.

The conservative approach UNC is taking on both sides of the ball is not unexpected, but still surprising. The NFL mentality of playing safe on offense and letting your defense force turnovers is slowly phasing out of the college game. Davis's best team in Chapel Hill delivered an 8-5 record. A fourth-straight 8-5 record this season may get Withers a courtesy interview and little else.

But that's where this North Carolina team is headed unless the coaching staff adjusts its "bend, don't break" defensive scheme and cautious offensive approach.

North Carolina's defense entered the season with pro prospects at various positions, but that unit gave up over 460 yards in three straight games and allowed Miami to churn out over 260 in the first half on Saturday. There are shortcomings in the secondary that have to be disguised, but quarterbacks like Clemson's Tajh Boyd, N.C. State's Mike Glennon and Duke's Sean Renfree will salivate at UNC's cornerbacks playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.

"It's about playing fundamental football," Withers said. "Knowing that some of those guys that are like Sammy Watkins are going to make some plays, you just hope they don't hurt you with big plays. Early in the game [against Miami], Travis Benjamin caught a couple of bubble passes and everybody in the crowd goes, ‘Ooohhh, ahhh.' Well, I'd rather for them to be catching the bubble passes than the 60-yard bombs down the field. We can tackle those and live to another day."

Injuries in the back seven, particularly at cornerback and safety, have played a role in North Carolina's approach, but senior safety Jonathan Smith was the lone member of that group to miss Saturday's game.

The "bend, don't break" defense can be effective when paired with a high-powered offense. But the combination of John Shoop's conservative pro-style offense and this defensive scheme creates a situation where each side of the ball appears to be waiting for the other side to make a play.

North Carolina's offensive talent – quarterback Bryn Renner, running back Gio Bernard and wide receiver Dwight Jones – help cover up a bland offensive system, and that's by design. Davis stressed numerous times during his tenure that once the talent arrived, the statistics would explode.

The vertical passing game that was supposed to thrive with play-action and a strong running attack has been nonexistent save for a handful of hookups between Renner, Jones and junior wideout Erik Highsmith. But Renner placed the blame on the players, not the scheme, on Monday.

"I think we just need to execute the plays," Renner said. "Whatever's called, we need to execute it. We haven't been doing that to the best of our ability on offense and I think everyone knows that, but we definitely need to improve this week."

And while a suggestion to alter the current philosophy may seem unrealistic, it's important to note that North Carolina made various changes on both sides of the ball against East Carolina. The Tar Heels rolled out a new 3-3-5 defensive alignment to counter the Pirates' aerial attack and Shoop opened up the offense as 10 different players touched the ball and the play calls included a halfback pass and a fake wide receiver reverse pass.

A strong run to close the season is possible with the talented roster at Withers' disposal, but he has to roll the dice now. A loss at Clemson would drop the Tar Heels to 1-3 in ACC play and end any hopes of an ACC Championship Game appearance.

If Withers wants to follow Davis's footsteps in anything, it should be his knack for pulling an improbable victory out of his back pocket – see Miami in '07, Virginia Tech in '09 and Florida State in '10.


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