Secondary Breakdown

CLEMSON, S.C. – North Carolina’s defensive plan was sound in concept, yet poor in execution. The Tar Heels intended to stop the run and force a true freshman quarterback to beat them with his arm. And that’s exactly what DeShaun Watson did in Clemson’s 50-35 win on Saturday night.

Standing beside a dumpster in the northwest corner of Memorial Stadium, junior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said what everyone watching already knew concerning UNC’s plan of action.

“It obviously didn’t work.”

Watson, making his first career start, completed 27 of his 36 passes for 435 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. He became the first freshman quarterback in ACC history to throw six touchdowns in a game and tied the ACC single-game record.

His 435 passing yards rank second in ACC history in a quarterback’s first start.

Four of Watson’s touchdowns throws were 33 yards or longer, including a 74-yarder on Clemson’s second play from scrimmage.

As good as Watson was, UNC’s secondary made him look even better with multiple mental lapses and a trio of pass interference flags.

“We made mistakes in the back end,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following the game. “We just made mistakes in the back end. You’re turning people free… That’s just a mistake. It’s a missed assignment. I’m sure that the call had somebody covering the person, but we didn’t execute it.”

Watson represented the first true dual-threat quarterback that UNC has faced this season. In an attempt to make Clemson one-dimensional by stopping the run with a variety of blitzes, associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning often put his secondary in 1-on-1 situations, which rarely worked in UNC’s favor.

Watson twice threw touchdown passes over freshmen defenders – Donnie Miles and M.J. Stewart – when UNC blitzed on 3rd-and-9. On three different occasions, Watson threw deep passes and his receivers picked up 15-yard pass interference calls against three different defensive backs – Tim Scott, Des Lawrence and Kedrick Davis.

UNC’s defensive strategy worked up front in holding Clemson to 92 rushing yards on 44 carries, good for a 2.1-yards-per-carry average. Fedora said that level of success should have afforded his team with a chance to win the game.

Breakdown after breakdown in the secondary, however, spoiled any potential upset.

“I didn’t foresee that we would just turn people loose,” Fedora said. “And he did a nice job taking advantage of it. The kid’s a good player, now. He’s going to be really good.”

Schoettmer, for his part, deflected sole blame from the secondary.

“It may look like the secondary to you, but it’s the line not getting enough rush and the linebackers not covering as well, too,” Schoettmer said. “So it’s the whole defense’s fault.”

UNC has allowed 882 passing yards through the air in its last two games, The Tar Heels ranked 125th out of 128 teams nationally in passing offense (325.3) entering their ACC opener with 325.3 yards.

With Saturday’s result included, UNC is allowing 353 passing yards per game.

Even so, Fedora is not concerned with the mental makeup of his defense.

“I don’t think there’s a lack of confidence,” he said. “There were too many missed assignments in the back end that gave up the big plays, but there was no lack of confidence in the game. There’s no lack of confidence in that locker room right now.”

That’s a telling observation in light of the number of defensive records that have fallen over the last two games.

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