Secondary on Fire

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina has tried to shield its vulnerable secondary throughout the season, but as recent opponents have shifted their approach to more pass-heavy schemes, the Tar Heels find themselves in desperate need of finding ways to plug the ever-growing holes.

Against Miami on Oct. 15, UNC expected to see a strong dose of running back Lamar Miller – then the ACC's leading rusher – early and often. But while the Tar Heels held Miller to just 12 net yards in the first half, the Hurricanes had entered the game ready to exploit UNC's back seven and the result was 22 first-half pass attempts, 233 passing yards and three passing touchdowns.

Head coach Everett Withers summed up that game plan succinctly during his weekly radio show on Wednesday: "To be honest with you, they changed a little bit of their philosophy. They went to a pass-first, run-second philosophy in the first half."

Fast forward to this past Saturday and Clemson followed Miami's lead with a multitude of hitch routes to take advantage of North Carolina's cornerbacks lining up 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.

The Tigers completed 12 passes on first down, which highlights offensive coordinator Chad Morris's change in approach for this UNC defense. In its first seven games, Clemson had averaged 42.6 rushes and 34.9 passes per outing. Against North Carolina, the Tigers threw 48 passes against 36 runs.

Against Maryland – a game in which Clemson trailed by 18 points in both the second and third quarters – the Tigers ran the ball 23 times on first down versus 15 pass plays. Against North Carolina, Clemson threw the ball 19 times on first down versus 17 run plays.

For the game, Clemson's Tajh Boyd completed 27 of his 46 passes for 367 yards and tied a school record with a career-high five touchdowns.

Senior linebacker Zach Brown told reporters following Saturday's loss that Clemson "came out with a different strategy," but his head coach disagreed on Monday.

"They have a game plan that basically with the no-huddle, they're going to try to do what you give them in the game plan," Withers said.

Withers explained that Clemson would often follow up the hitch routes on first down with run plays on second down, and that trend continued for most of the game.

"We set some coverages to try to take that away, but we didn't capitalize on the opportunity," Withers said. "We had the ball in our hands twice on defense and didn't come down with them."

When asked if North Carolina arrived in Death Valley expecting more of a balanced offensive attack from the Tigers, Brown responded: "Yeah, we did – well, I didn't. As a defense, we already knew what was up. They're not going to run the ball; they're going to throw the ball. Our coaches said they were going to run-pass, but as a defense, we had it in our mind that we knew what they were going to do, so we just had to adjust to that."

Withers pointed to UNC's six turnovers as a bigger issue in Saturday's loss than his defense's performance.

"I don't care what kind of defense you've got, if you keep putting them back out there on the field, some teams are going to make some plays – a good team is," Withers said. "And I felt like the plan was good. I felt like we had a very effective plan going in. We spent a lot of time [and] I think the coaches did a great job. In the first half, I thought we executed the plan even with the turnovers. That third quarter, you keep going back out there with the ball in your territory… It's tough on a defense."

But it's hard not to focus on a secondary that ranks 101st nationally in pass defense (263.4 ypg, 11th ACC) and 90th in pass efficiency defense (138.5, 11th ACC). North Carolina's seven FBS opponents' average pass offense rank is 60th nationally, while James Madison ranks 119th in FCS play. UNC's final four opponents – Wake Forest, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Duke – average out to 36th nationally in pass offense.

The secondary play needs to improve, and fast.

"We've got to obviously play better down the middle of the field and on the outside," Withers said. "We're in good shape a lot of times and then we just don't finish. We've just got to finish at the ball."

North Carolina only has six interceptions on the season. One belongs to defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and another to Brown at linebacker. Two of the remaining four were hauled in by fifth-senior starting safety Matt Merletti, who is out for the season after spraining his MCL and ACL against Clemson.

Merletti is considered by his teammates to be the leader of the defensive backfield along with safety Jonathan Smith. His 12 career starts ranks second in the secondary behind cornerback Charles Brown's 29.

Smith will start at strong safety against Wake Forest on Saturday, while junior Gene Robinson and sophomore Tre Boston are in contention for Merletti's open free safety spot.

"Back in the secondary, we have to stand tall," Robinson said. "We've got to make plays. When the ball is in the air and we have an opportunity to make a play, we've got to make the play."

The opportunities have been there throughout the course of the season, and will likely continue to be as future opponents aim to attack UNC through the air. If the Tar Heels fail to capitalize on those chances, the bowl bid that seemed like a sure thing three weeks ago could vanish along with the 2011 season.

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