There’s a laundry list of problems to highlight in trying to explain UNC’s current defensive predicament. The Tar Heels rank 124th in scoring defense (43.3 ppg) and 117th in total defense (508.0 ypg).
There have been missed tackles. There have been missed assignments. There has been an inability to get consistent pressure up front and there have been poor angles taken in the secondary.
One aspect that hasn’t gotten much attention, however, is the relationship between Larry Fedora’s HUNH offense and the effects of that increased tempo on the defensive efforts.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson started that conversation when he was asked about UNC’s defensive issues during his weekly ACC teleconference call on Wednesday.
“When you play as many snaps as they play, when you hurry up on one end, the other side gets a lot of turns, too,” Johnson said. “ Sometimes stats can be somewhat deceiving in that if they're playing 30 or 40 plays more on defense than other teams are playing. I think it's all relative.”
Johnson’s point is valid. His Yellow Jackets rank 62nd nationally in total defense (388.3) and 63rd in scoring defense (25.0). Georgia Tech, however, is allowing more yards per play (6.31) than UNC (6.18).
The difference? UNC has defended an average of 21 plays per game more than Georgia Tech through six games (493-369).
Johnson has been effective in protecting his defense by controlling the clock. Georgia Tech holds the ball for more than eight minutes longer per game than UNC.
Take Georgia Tech’s 28-17 win over Miami on Oct. 4, for example. The Hurricanes averaged a staggering 8.0 yards per play, yet only ran 44 plays in less than 20 minutes of ball possession.
“When you look at the two, our defense is definitely on the field more than theirs,” Fedora said in response to Johnson’s comments. “Part of the problem is you have to get off the field when you're on defense. When you're out there, you still control whether those chains keep moving or not, and you've got to get off the field.”
That speaks to UNC’s woeful percentages on third and fourth down. The Tar Heels rank 115th in third-down conversion defense (48.5) and 111th in fourth-down conversion defense (75.0).
When asked about his defense playing an average of 86.3 snaps during UNC’s current four-game losing streak, UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning joked that it felt more like 96 plays per game.
“When you’re not three deep, then you’ve got guys that are playing an excessive number of plays,” Koenning said. “I’m not griping, I’m just saying that it’s harder for them to be as fast… but it is what it is. So we’ve got to get them off the field. If we had 3-and-out’d them, like we’ve done a couple of times this year, then you won’t have those problems.”
After allowing a trio of lengthy scoring drives in the first 20 minutes of its loss to Notre Dame, UNC’s defense held the Fighting Irish to 121 yards over their next seven possessions.
As the play count piled up, Notre Dame was able to secure its victory with a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives (15 plays on 81 yards; 10 plays on 81 yards) that soaked up 12 minutes and 27 seconds off the clock.
And it’s not as though those scoring drives were the result of breakdowns and miscues, according to Koenning. UNC missed just four defensive assignments and had the least amount of loafs (lack of effort plays) on the season on Saturday.
“It’s just the way of college football now,” Koenning said. “It just is what it is. We have to deal with it and we have to find a way to play more guys…
“We’re not - in no way, shape or form – making any excuses or anything. We’ve just got to be better. We’ve got to get more guys ready to play.”
This weekend’s matchup with Georgia Tech could offer a reprieve of sorts. The Yellow Jackets are running 67.8 plays per game, good for 13th in the ACC (Wake Forest).
Tempo Adding to Defensive Woes
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