Defensive Progress Required

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If North Carolina intends to stay alive in the chaotic ACC Coastal Division, history suggests its defense has to make significant strides over the final five weeks of the regular season.

The Coastal race is playing out as many pundits projected during the offseason. That is, a modern day version of the Wild West. All seven teams have at least one win and at least one loss with the majority of ACC games yet to be played.

UNC (3-4, 1-2 ACC) is in contention but no longer in control of its destiny. Defense will likely determine if either of those dynamics change in the coming weeks.

A quick look across the power five conference championship games from 2013 paints a clear picture that defense remains a key factor despite the spread evolution that’s taken over scoreboards during the last 10-15 years.

Eight of the nine teams that either won their conference championships or played in the title game – the Big 12 didn’t play a championship game – ranked in the top-50 in either scoring or total defense.

ACC champ Florida State led the nation in scoring defense and ranked third in total defense. Big Ten champ Michigan State ranked second nationally in total defense and third in scoring defense, while Pac-12 champ Stanford finished the season 10th in scoring defense and 16th in total defense. Even Big 12 champ Baylor, known for its explosive offense, checked in at 27th in total defense and 36th in scoring defense.

The SEC championship game participants – Auburn and Missouri – allowed plenty of yards (87th and 82nd in total defense, respectively) but managed to limit points (47th and 34th and scoring defense, respectively).

UNC’s goal at this point, however, is not to worry about winning the ACC title, but rather to win the Coastal for a chance to play for the conference crown. To accomplish that goal, the Tar Heels need to look no further than eight miles down 15-501.

Duke, the outlier alluded to above, won the 2013 Coastal Division crown despite ranking 83rd in total defense and 64th in scoring defense.

As bad as Duke’s defensive statistics may have been last season, its defensive play was good enough after a 0-2 ACC start to win six straight conference games. The Blue Devils allowed just 21.3 points per game in their six ACC wins.

The current UNC defense is long ways away from that level of production, at least statistically. The Tar Heels rank 119th in total defense (522.3 ypg) and 124th in scoring defense (43.3 ppg). The stats are not any better in ACC play – UNC occupies the cellar in both scoring (43.3) and total defense (522.7).

UNC head coach Larry Fedora opened his weekly press conference on Monday saying that he had seen some improvement in all three phases emerging from the win over Georgia Tech. When asked about the improvement on the defensive side of the ball, he talked more about intangibles than production.

“It’s more about attitude and effort and all of those things,” Fedora said. “I’m happy to say we don’t face the triple option again this year, so we don’t have to be concerned with it. But I still think our attitudes and the way we’re practicing and the belief in what we’re doing is still very good.”

Middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said his position group did not watch the game film from Saturday, marking the second time this season linebackers coach Ron West has taken that approach. Schoettmer did say that missed assignments and lack of effort plays – “loafs” – were kept to a minimum for the second week in a row.

That, if anything, allows for some optimism that UNC can replicate last season’s second-half turnaround in dropping yards per play from 5.6 to 4.7.

It’s also worth noting that UNC ranked 53rd in scoring defense (25.7 ppg) and 57th in total defense (389.6 ypg) in 2012. The Tar Heels would have represented the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship Game had they been eligible for postseason play.

The 2012 UNC defense surrendered several high-scoring outputs, including 68 points to Georgia Tech, 38 to Maryland and 35 to N.C. State. The Tar Heels also held Virginia to 13 points, Miami to 14 and Wake Forest to 28 to help their offense out.

Those types of defensive contributions will likely be necessary if UNC hopes to be in the Coastal conversation when Thanksgiving rolls around.

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