Defending the Air Raid

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Lincoln Riley’s offense carved up North Carolina for 55 points and 603 total yards of offense in 2013. The challenge for the Tar Heels this time around hasn’t gotten any easier.

Riley, East Carolina’s 31-year-old offensive coordinator, has the Pirates averaging 7.2 yards per play and 512.3 yards per game in 2014 despite trips to top-25 opponent locales in South Carolina and Virginia Tech.

“We’re going to have to play our best for us to hang in there,” UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said on Wednesday, “because offensively they’re as good as anybody probably right now in the country.”

It’s hard to argue with Riley’s scheme. He grew up in the football world under Mike Leach’s tutelage and in the Air Raid attack at Texas Tech. Leach’s coaching tree includes West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, Cal head coach Sonny Dykes, Baylor head coach Art Briles, Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury and UNC assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell.

Leach’s current Washington State squad leads the nation with 1,551 passing yards through three games. Baylor ranks third with 1,248 passing yards, West Virginia stands fourth (1,231) and ECU checks in at sixth (1,122).

To chalk ECU’s success up to scheme, however, would be a slight to senior quarterback Shane Carden (81-of-130 passing, 1,031 yards, 7 TD, 2 INT) and his trio of wide receivers – Justin Hardy (23 catches, 267 yards, 2 TD), Isaiah Jones (21 catches, 207 yards, 2 TD) and Cam Worthy (11 catches, 302 yards, TD).

“Two years ago, [Carden] wasn’t anywhere near what he is today, so he’s obviously gotten a lot better,” Koenning said. “And he seems a lot better than last year, so that’s a scary thought. And they’ve got three receivers now, whereas last year they really only had one go-to guy, so that’s an even scarier thought.”

The Pirates feasted on 37 UNC missed assignments last September in building a 21-3 lead. ECU’s 101 plays were the most ever by an opponent against the Tar Heels.

Senior safety Tim Scott watched last season’s game film hours after making a game-saving interception in the end zone against San Diego State. His teammates have talked openly about being embarrassed on their home field throughout the week, although the statistics were a byproduct of a greater problem.

“The glaring thing in that game was that they just outplayed us,” junior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “They whooped our butt in every phase of the game. They just outplayed us, which was the most embarrassing thing for me. Any time a team is more physical than us or hustles to the ball harder than us, that’s just unacceptable. That can’t happen. I think guys will come out flying to the ball.”

While some film is burned or tucked away in the back corner of a coach’s closet, there is plenty of value in what happened against ECU last year for this Tar Heel defense, according to Koenning.

“We didn’t make plays,” Koenning said. “In a whole bunch of situations, there was somebody there to trigger, or they made a play and we didn’t. It got away from us a little bit. That was at a point last year where we hadn’t found our way yet. I’m not saying that’s where we are right now, but we’re not playing as well as we feel like we can or want to.”

UNC currently ranks 93rd in total defense (427.5 ypg) and 83rd in scoring defense (28.0) despite being tied for fourth nationally in turnover margin (plus-2.0).

Some of that discrepancy can be explained by inconsistency due to youth. UNC’s two-deep includes 10 underclassmen as well as a handful of juniors that are seeing their first significant playing time.

The Tar Heels missed 34 tackles against San Diego State and roughly half of those came at the safety positions, according to Koenning. As a result, UNC has spent 5-10 minutes in each practice over the last two weeks tackling to the ground in an attempt to build confidence.

Koenning told reporters it’s the first time in his 24-year career that he’s tackled to the ground during the season. Normal protocol involves hitting the sled and thudding up.

If there’s a positive for UNC’s defense heading into this weekend’s visit to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, it’s that increased talent and bodies in the secondary allows for more versatility in Koenning’s 4-2-5 scheme, including the ability to play man coverage, if needed.

And despite the ongoing defensive struggles, UNC hasn’t allowed an opponent to top the 30-point threshold since last season’s loss to East Carolina, a span covering 11 games.

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