CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Costly mistakes across the board by North Carolina last weekend delivered the worst offensive performance of the Larry Fedora era. Eliminating those miscues will be required for the Tar Heels to reignite their explosiveness against one of the top defenses in the country on Saturday.
UNC had made plenty of mistakes against Pittsburgh and Florida State, although dramatic come-from-behind victories have a way of brushing the negatives to the side.
“When you win, it kind of masks the mistakes,” offensive coordinator/OL coach Chris Kapilovic said on Wednesday. “It’s easy to say, ‘oh well, it will be alright, we’ll fix it.’ But when you lose, then there’s, all of a sudden, that sense of urgency that I really have to fix it.”
There’s reason for concern. The Tar Heels are a game behind Virginia Tech in the ACC Coastal Division standings – and would lose the tiebreaker – entering a pivotal road game against No. 16 Miami. The Hurricanes lead the ACC and rank fifth nationally in scoring defense (12.8), while also ranking fifth nationally in yards per play allowed (3.95).
Talent has never been the issue in Coral Gables, and first-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is maximizing that potential despite having to work around injuries and having to rely on a number of true freshmen.
“He’s very multiple,” Fedora said. “He runs just about every front there is and just about every coverage. It’s hard to get a bead on a tendency for him because he does so many things.”
Miami is blitzing roughly 60 percent of the time, according to Fedora, and brings those blitzes from various places, not unlike Pat Narduzzi’s approach at Pittsburgh.
“They’ve done a tremendous job of getting pressure on the quarterback,” Kapilovic said. “They have a really good D-line and they bring some real exotic blitzes on third downs.”
The Hurricanes are deep up front, which allows Diaz to rotate his linemen to keep starters such as Chad Thomas (20 tkl, 7.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and Joe Jackson (9 tkl, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) fresh. Miami ranks eighth nationally with 3.6 sacks per game and has made a habit of hitting quarterbacks often. The back seven also provides plenty of support in helping increase that pressure in the backfield.
“They have a good secondary, so there are times when those guys are covering and that [wide receiver] is not coming open and the quarterback has to hold the ball a second longer, and that’s when those guys are getting shots on them,” Kapilovic said.
Miami has found success with its unique looks and disguises in creating hesitancy in its opponents, which provides enough of an edge to be disruptive at the line of scrimmage.
The key to handling all that Diaz shows pre-snap, according to running back Elijah Hood, is simple: “Don’t panic.”
“Whenever they line up something, you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, what is this?’” he continued. “Sometimes they have three safeties out there. Sometimes they take a defensive lineman out and put a linebacker in and walk him up into the 3-technique and you say, ‘Wait, is this a four down [linemen], or is it a 50 because they have four backers?’ They’ll do some weird stuff.”
Hood, who has been cleared to play this weekend, said his Tar Heels have to stay true to their principles and block properly when Miami sends blitzes. As for dealing with those odd looks, UNC has a defensive mechanism in place.
“If you tempo, it’s hard to get those kinds of calls in to begin with,” Hood said. “Just by moving fast, you can take some of that element out.”
Tempo worked against Florida State, and the Tar Heels may need it to work again on Saturday to win in Florida for the second time in three weeks.