CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There are 128 FBS programs nationally, and North Carolina is the only one without a defensive interception in 2016.
While UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky was extending his school record of pass attempts without an interception (293) into last weekend’s game against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heel defense was encountering a very different issue: an inability to force a turnover in the passing game.
UNC intercepted at least one pass in 35 of the 52 games played during Larry Fedora’s first four years as head coach. That averages out to about four games a year without an interception, although the 2013 defense played seven games without a pick. UNC is 0-for-6 thus far in 2016.
“We’ve had opportunities,” Chizik said. “We’ve obviously talked about it. We’ve been in position to make some plays and we haven’t, and then there are a lot of times we haven’t been in the position to make some plays.”
“It’s very surprising, especially at the level those guys are competing at,” defensive backs coach Charlton Warren said. “We’ve had opportunities to make several and we’ve probably had about six in our hands at some point. And to me, if it touches your finger, you should pick it.”
One of those missed opportunities occurred against the Hokies when senior cornerback Des Lawrence made a solid play on a fade route to break up a pass, although Warren indicated the pass should have been intercepted.
“That’s the frustrating part,” Warren said. “We’re in position and we’re competing our butts off, but we’re not coming down with the play. And right now, that’s what we’re lacking on defense is that play. I challenge my guys daily. They’re out here on the jugs machine, we’re doing drills, but in the moment, you’ve got to have the knack to make the play.”
The Tar Heels have been consistent during the Fedora era in forcing turnovers, averaging nearly 24 per year. That number currently sits at five, courtesy of recovered fumbles.
Interceptions had been consistent as well, at least until this season. UNC picked off eight passes through six games in both 2012 and 2013, that number rose to nine in 2014 before falling to five in 2015.
The Tar Heels haven’t allowed the lack of interceptions to dampen their mood.
“It all starts with your technique,” junior cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “If your technique is bad, you’ll never be in position to make a play. All we can do is keep clamping on receivers and keeping being in position. We’re going to make one soon.”
The single-season record for fewest interceptions is two (2002). Both picks in John Bunting’s second season as head coach occurred in the third game against Wisconsin.
“It’s funny how turnovers sometimes come in droves and sometimes it’s a desert,” Chizik said, “but we’re hoping we can get our hands on some balls soon.”
There’s a reason for that feast or famine dynamic, which is that turnovers are statistically random. In 2008, UNC led the nation in interceptions with 14 through the first six games of the season. The Tar Heels then picked off six passes over the final seven games.