CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – For the second year in row, North Carolina’s opening three games included a season opener against a SEC opponent at a neutral site, an overmatched FCS opponent at home and Illinois. Even the specific games matched up comparably, as the Tar Heels lost tight contests against South Carolina and Georgia before blowing out the Illini along with the FCS opposition.
Despite those similarities, UNC’s defensive production has taken a step backward so far in 2016.
|Stats through 3 games||2015||2016|
|Points Per Game||15.0||28.0|
|Yards Per Game||355.3||426.0|
|Rushing Yards Per Game||212.0||226.7|
|Yards Per Carry||4.8||4.9|
|Yards Per Play||4.8||5.6|
|Third Down % Defense||46% (23-50)||44% (21-48)|
|Red Zone TD %||50% (4-8)||67% (8-12)|
A 17 percent increase in yards per play (4.8 to 5.6) helps to explain the 20 percent increase in yards per game (355.3 to 426.0), although head coach Larry Fedora and defensive coordinator Gene Chizik have been quick to dismiss the relevance of yardage stats.
"We don't put a whole lot of stock in yards allowed anymore,” Fedora said at the ACC Kickoff in July. “Total yards or defense, that's not really even a stat we pay any attention to. The most important stat is scoring defense. That's the way we look at it… Scoring defense is No. 1. If you don't let them get in the end zone, it doesn't matter how many times you let them run up and down the field.”
Scoring defense is where the primary concern lies through three games. After allowing 15 points per game through Week 3 in 2015, UNC is giving up 28.0 points per game, which represents an 87 percent jump. Only four regular season opponents scored more than 21 points in 2015. All three of UNC’s opponents this season have scored 23 or more points. The Tar Heels' last nine opponents have averaged 32.3 points per game.
Where UNC excelled last season defensively was limiting explosive scoring plays and forcing teams to drive the length of the field to score. Not only have opponents in 2016 totaled more explosive scoring plays - Fedora categorizes explosive plays as a run of 12+ yards and a pass of 15+ yards - but they have also been more efficient scoring touchdowns in the red zone with 50 percent more opportunities.
The Tar Heels have yet to make an interception this season after picking off 17 passes in 2015, despite having seven opportunities to do so, according to Fedora.
On Tuesday, Chizik stressed the variety of issues plaguing his defense – playing soft, miscommunication, etc. – have resulted in the poor defensive numbers to date.
“It’s bad defense, and I’m not happy with it one bit,” Chizik said. “In the first three games, I think we’ve played subpar. That’s probably a kind statement.”
UNC currently ranks 79th nationally in scoring defense, 94th in total defense and 98th in third-down conversion percentage defense. The Tar Heels' next four opponents - Pittsburgh, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami - all rank in the top-50 nationally in scoring offense, averaging 36.0 points or more per game.