CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Two possessions. 14 points. 157 yards. 7.9 yards per play.
Barely 11 minutes into its home opener against a FCS opponent in James Madison and North Carolina’s defense was getting shredded yet again. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Two years removed from one of the worst defensive seasons in school history, the Tar Heels had given up plenty of yards a year ago but managed to keep their opponents off the scoreboard.
In 2016, UNC had already allowed 56 points in its first two games, and the Dukes were on pace for plenty more on Saturday.
Middle linebacker Andre Smith had had enough. As the defense slogged off the field following its third unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, linebackers coach John Papuchis huddled the unit on the aluminum benches forming the sideline's perimeter. Before he could lay into his defense, Smith stepped in and unleashed a furious tirade, yelling and stomping his feet, demanding and pleading his teammates to escape the heavy fog in which they had been dwelling.
Papuchis stood at a distance, arms crossed, watching leadership in action. Smith wasn’t the only one trying to boost morale and refocus the defense. Veteran cornerbacks Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart had their own words to share, along with defensive end Mikey Bart and safety Dominquie Green. Even defensive tackle Naz Jones, sidelined with a concussion, entered the fray and made his voice heard.
“We were just trying to light a fire under everybody,” Lawrence said after the game. “Just let them know that this isn’t the way that we play. There were just some things that we don’t even do in practice. There were bad things that happened in the game that we don’t even see on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. It was just frustrating to see what we had practiced for all week wasn’t showing up.”
After highlighting the need for schematic adjustments early in UNC’s first two games, head coach Larry Fedora pointed to a different kind of adjustment after Saturday’s 56-28 win.
“We just needed a mental adjustment,” Fedora said. “We needed an attitude adjustment. There was too much negative energy after the first drive, which was disappointing.”
The correction was not immediate. James Madison scored again on its third possession, pushing its first quarter totals to 21 points and 222 yards.
“I think when you get into games where everybody on the outside thinks you should win a certain way and when those things don’t go like that in the game, then guys get frustrated,” Fedora said.
That’s the trap aspect of playing a FCS opponent, especially considering Fedora’s track record of demolishing lower-division opponents by an average of six touchdowns per game during his head coaching career.
“Yeah, a lot of it had to do with them being FCS,” Bart said. “We know that we have better players than them, not that they’re not good. They have a pretty good offense. FCS or not, they can score points, and at the end of the day, we just didn’t play as well as we could. We’ve got to get a lot better.”
“Embarrassing” was the term linebacker Cayson Collins choose to describe the first quarter. Lawrence recounted seeing stunned expressions on the faces of his teammates, surprised that a FCS opponent was able to move the ball with such ease.
“If we don’t do the things that we’re coached to do or that we practice doing, then anybody can move the ball on us,” Lawrence said. “It doesn’t matter who it is.”
James Madison’s coaching staff had not put in sleepless nights designing a new scheme to confuse the Tar Heels. The Dukes employed their standard zone read that UNC had watched on film during the week, although once the game kicked off the defense was either not fitting the right gaps or making the right play a split second too late.
“They did everything we prepared for, and we just couldn’t get it done,” Bart said.
UNC forced its first punt on the Dukes’ first series of the second quarter and got stops on the next two possessions. JMU’s yardage increased to 317 by halftime, yet the Tar Heels had stopped the scoring flow. The momentum had shifted in the form a 35-21 halftime lead, although the defense had relied far too much on the offense.
The blistering halftime speech by Gene Chizik the Tar Heels were expecting never came. Instead, the second-year UNC defensive coordinator took a more tactical approach, changing the scope of the dialogue from the final 30 minutes on Saturday to the final 9.5 games of the regular season.
He asked one simple question: “Who do you want to be?”
Chizik challenged his defense to answer that question after halftime by removing the schematic elements from the game plan. The Tar Heels would run their base packages, and it was up to the players to execute and prove their worth.
The name on the opposing jerseys finally began to blur as the Tar Heels shifted their focus away from the Dukes and more to playing to the standard they had set for their defense in training camp. UNC held JMU to seven points and 178 yards after halftime.
“This is a great learning tool,” Lawrence said. “I’m just glad that we got a bad game out. As a defense, we can say that we had a bad game and the offense definitely stepped up for us. We don’t want to have too many more of those. We’re ready to come back and ready to work.”