CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 22 Duke and No. 23 Pittsburgh have relied on solid defense to remain undefeated in ACC play. While North Carolina is better known for its offensive exploits during the Larry Fedora era, its defense is making a case for the best unit in the Coastal Division in 2015.
The Blue Devils (6-1, 3-0 ACC) currently ranks as the top defense in the Coastal, topping the division in scoring defense (14.1 ppg) and total defense (281.3 ypg). UNC (6-1, 3-0 ACC) has allowed fewer points than Pittsburgh (16.7-to-21.6), although the Tar Heels have allowed more yards (349.9-to-308.3).
In ACC play, UNC is allowing the fewest points (19.3) of the trio, while Pittsburgh (6-1, 4-0 ACC) is giving up the fewest number of yards (320.8).
“I definitely feel like we’re better than them, as far as defense,” defensive tackle Robert Dinkins said after UNC’s 26-13 win over Virginia on Saturday. “It’s just a mentality we create and the chemistry we have in our locker room. It can’t be manipulated. It’s amazing, really. I just feel like nobody else can touch what we have.”
A deeper statistical dive into FootballOutsiders.com’s advanced metrics indicates that Duke has the top defense in the Coastal Division.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI), which determines the scoring value per possession adjusted for the strength of opposing offenses, ranks the Blue Devils 22nd nationally, Pittsburgh 43rd and UNC 78th. FootballOutsiders.com’s S&P+ ratings, a second data set that factors in variables such as efficiency, field position and turnovers, ranks Duke third nationally, Pittsburgh 39th and UNC 61st.
Nationally, UNC ranks 16th in scoring defense, 36th in total defense, 10th in pass efficiency defense, T-57th in red zone TD percentage defense (57.1) and T-82nd in third-down conversion percentage defense (.41).
While statistical rankings and advanced metrics make for quality message board fodder, the most dynamic element of Gene Chizik’s first defense in Chapel Hill has been its ability to make halftime adjustments and execute.
The Tar Heels have held their five Power 5 conference opponents to 24 second-half points. In ACC play, UNC has held its last two opponents (Wake Forest and UVa) scoreless after Georgia Tech scored 10 points after halftime on Oct. 3.
“Once we understand what the offense is trying to do, and how they’re trying to exploit us, we just see the game better,” middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “We just get into the flow of the game after a couple of series and we’re lights out. We understand exactly where we’re supposed to fit. We see a few plays that hurt us, we get it corrected on the sideline and we go out and execute it.”
Chizik approaches halftime as if it were a business meeting, talking to his players “like grown men,” according to Schoettmer.
On Saturday, for example, Chizik explained why the Cavaliers were having success, wrote four plays that were giving his defense trouble on a whiteboard, and made the necessary adjustments. After gaining 226 yards in the first half, Virginia was held to 127 yards after halftime.
UNC’s defensive play through seven games has alleviated pressure on its offense to score on every drive, according to quarterback Marquise Williams, which has been a requirement at times in recent years.
“They are helping us out as an offense,” Williams said. “The more they continue to get us back the ball and give us more possessions, the better the offense is going to be.”
UNC’s offense is already pretty good, ranking atop the Coastal Division in scoring offense (38.4) and total offense (473.6 ypg). Those are statistics that neither Duke’s nor Pittsburgh’s defense has at its disposal.