The Defensive Scheme is Sound
After each of the first three losses, many have called for scrapping UNC's hybrid 4-2-5 approach and returning to a more traditional 4-3 base, blaming many of Carolina's early woes on the defensive scheme. That drumbeat has only gotten louder after giving up 55 points in an embarrassing home loss to ECU.
I have bad news for the 4-3 advocates: It's not a scheme problem, it's a personnel and attitude problem. More to the point, even if UNC was still a base 4-3 defense, nearly the entire game against ECU's Air Raid offense would have been spent in nickel or dime packages to match ECU's 4-wide personnel packages.
In other words, even a base 4-3 team would be forced into a 4-2-5 or 3-3-5 against ECU's offense. If anything, UNC's system is better suited to limit ECU's style of offense than a traditional 4-3, since it is based out of the very nickel packages needed against that offense rather than having to move to less familiar packages in the way a traditional base would.
Sure, if you have a guy like Bruce Carter out there, you can afford to play an extra linebacker in certain situations because he can run and cover like a defensive back. That kind of flexible player would potentially be even more significant in a 4-2. But Bruce Carter is not walking through that door; this team doesn't have a Bruce Carter.
Looking at things from the other sideline, ECU was also in a five or six defensive back lineup against UNC's spread most of the game, and the Pirates' 3-3 and 4-2 packages didn't seem to hurt their ability to limit a surprisingly anemic UNC offense, which leads to the second point.
The More Physical Team Won
The painful reality is that the more physical and aggressive team won this game. ECU came into Kenan Stadium swinging, and UNC never matched the Pirates' intensity. Time after time, a defensive player had the opportunity to stop a play for a loss or short gain only for the Pirate ball carrier to break the tackle and gain upwards of 10 yards after contact.
I don't know the exact yards after contact numbers in this game, but it's a safe guess that around half of ECU's total yardage came after contact. That is a marker of a passive, undisciplined, and uninspired defense that quite simply does not take pride in finishing plays.
More remarkable is that this is exactly the opposite of the defensive performance at Georgia Tech, where the Heels' defense flew to the football and tackled better than they had at any point the last two or three years. Instead, ECU put the defense on its heels early and Vic Koenning's crew never responded, never hit back, but rather seemed to lose faith, which should be very concerning for Tar Heel fans looking forward. This team was obviously heavily emotionally invested in the South Carolina and Georgia Tech games to open the season and now—particularly on defense—has an obvious confidence problem that must be remedied if this team is to bounce back.
ECU came into this game as the more confident team and was the aggressor throughout, while the Heels looked hungover after the Georgia Tech loss and never recovered after taking a few blows early. Instead of responding with pride and physical play, the defense seemed to take on a "here we go again" body language and grew increasingly frustrated at its own impotence, with that frustrated resignation being a big reason ECU had so much success in the running game once it had established the pass.
That psychological response is always the biggest concern with any front-loaded schedule, as football is so thoroughly dependent on confidence. With Virginia Tech and Miami looming, the Carolina staff simply has to find a way to get this team to play looser and more confidently or the season could quickly spiral out of control.
Offensive Woes Continue
One final component of this debacle was the continued struggle of an offense that came into this season with very high expectations but has sputtered through all three losses. The offense's inability to get early points has been an additional reason for the defense's lack of confidence.
One of the beauties of an uptempo attack is that it can put opponents on their heels on both sides of the ball, especially if the uptempo team can gain a lead. But the reverse can also be true, as an uptempo offense can hang its defense out to dry if it sputters early. Over a few games, that stress of always playing from behind at a high tempo can—and has—affect confidence, as the defense begins to doubt the offense can get it back in games.
So far this year, the offense has struggled to create space both in the running game and in the downfield passing game. Yards after contact have been minimal, and Bryn Renner has yet to look comfortable, instead looking like he is rushing himself and trying to do too much, partly as a result of an offensive line that has not been as reliable as the line of 2012.
As a result, I think the offensive side may be where a few tweaks can be made to try to bring some life. Were I in charge of the offense, I'd still go no-huddle but would want to slow the pace a bit until Renner looks more comfortable. He simply does not look suited to the super-high tempo and needs to get into a rhythm before amping up the speed.
I'd also go with more two-tight looks while really trying to establish the inside zone and play action game downfield. I would also look to use Marquise Williams at quarterback inside the 10 yard line, where UNC has really struggled this year.
The reality is that this team is better than they looked on Saturday and better than a 1-3 record would suggest. But it is badly in need of confidence on defense and rhythm on offense and lacks the kind of elite difference-makers on either side of the ball needed to stem the tide once it gets knocked down a time or two. If this team can get an early lead against Virginia Tech or Miami and gain confidence, look out. If not, the season could get even longer for Tar Heel fans.