Reviewing the individual defensive statistics from the Syracuse game, you have to look past two safeties, two defensive ends, and a cornerback before a linebacker shows up in number of tackles. Dexter Reid made more tackles than did linebackers Clay Roberson and Doug Justice combined.
Last season, as the Tar Heels were stumbling into their final game against Duke, head coach John Bunting felt that his defense had improved over the course of the year.
"I think we're better," Bunting said at the time. "The improvement of a Chase Page, the improvement of Jocques Dumas, Madison Hedgecock has helped us over there (defensive line). Doug Justice has significantly gotten better because of his experience."
With spring and fall practice to get better on defense, there was hope that UNC's defense would improve based on the number of players returning and improved depth at nearly every position. After two games this season, one thing is abundantly clear – the defense hasn't improved. Has it gotten worse?
"There's not much else to talk about," Bunting said specifically about stopping the run after Saturday's loss. "It's the same thing. It's very simple: force, fill, pursuit. One guy forces the play; the other guy fills the running lane, all the other players' pursuit. It's not complicated. We're not able to do it."
There are a variety of arguments that attempt to explain the ineptness of the defense. Some say the Tar Heels simply lack the talent. Others argue that the defensive schemes and adjustments are to blame. Some point to players being in position to make plays and simply missing tackles, while others argue the UNC defensive players are no where to be seen at the point of attack.
No matter where the blame lies, the Tar Heels are not going to improve from a team that gives up 500 yards per contest to a team that fields a good defense from now until the end of the season, no matter what "fix" is attempted. The question is whether to expect any improvement.
What should be abundantly clear at this point is that what the Tar Heels have been doing on defense is not working. Two choices present themselves, neither of which are all of a sudden going to produce a Florida State-like defense.
The first choice is to continue with the personnel that has seen the bulk of the playing time on defense and continue to present multiple defensive fronts and coverages that attempt to confuse opposing offenses.
That option promises more of the same for the North Carolina defense. Perhaps some players will show improvement, and perhaps the entire defense will get better at executing the complicated defensive schemes used to this point. However, it is difficult to project a quantum leap forward using that approach.
In addition, the confidence of the defense has to be suffering after allowing a 17-point comeback. Getting back that confidence can only come with better results.
"Nothing I can say in the huddle--I can scream and yell all I want and say ‘Come on fellas. Let's go, let's stop this,'" defensive tackler Chase Page said following the loss. "If guys don't get where they need to be and do what they need to do, it doesn't matter."
The second option is to radically simplify the defense and get some talented true freshmen, Larry Edwards, Fred Sparkman, Joe Kedra, for example, on the field. Those players could be expected to make some freshmen mistakes, and opposing offenses will understand the simplified UNC defensive schemes going into contests.
The upside of that option is that it will bring more speed to a defense that is slow to react and that by simplifying defensive assignments the Tar Heel defense will have a chance to make plays. In addition, it gets the future of the UNC defense on the field now.
The harsh truth is that by implementing the second option, the Tar Heel defense could hardly be worse.
It is difficult to complain about an offense that rolls up over 500 yards of offense and scores 47 points. At the end of the day, they came up short, but as quarterback Darian Durant said following the game, "That game should have been over a long time ago."
Though the weakest part of the offense is still the running game, the Tar Heels got over 100 rushing yards of production out of tail backs Willie Parker and Ronnie McGill. Too much of the rushing total came from quarterback Darian Durant (69 yards), but the running game showed signs of improvement and the potential to get even better during the season.
Wide receiver Jarwarski Pollock had another great game, catching 10 balls for 95 yards, and Brandon Russell added five catches for 67 yards. The big story in the passing game may have been the emergence of Jacque Lewis as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield, as Lewis snagged seven passes for 67 yards.
North Carolina is blessed with an exceptional quarterback in Darian Durant. After two games, he is completing 65% of his passes and averaging 276.5 yards per game in total offense. The junior quarterback now owns the record for career touchdowns at North Carolina, and is third in career passing efficiency in the ACC.
For the second straight game, the offensive line protected Durant well. The Heels gave up no sacks (Syracuse sacked Durant three times last year). With better protection and improved game management skills, Durant is set to break even more records as the season progresses. The only thing that will prevent Durant from being the Offensive MVP in the ACC this season is North Carolina's overall record.
"Winning games when you set records makes the record a lot sweeter. It's not all about records," Durant said. "It's about winning games."
As the young receivers gain experience, the North Carolina passing attack will only improve. Mike Mason has already shown the potential to be a stellar wide receiver. Derrele Mitchell has made some critical catches.
But the question remains, even with what looks to be an improved offense can North Carolina simply outscore any of its remaining opponents?
Except for giving up one kickoff return of 52 yards, overall the Heels have shown improvement in this area. The Orangemen averaged only five yards per punt return, and less than twenty yards per kickoff return (including the 52-yarder in the average). This is a significant improvement over last season, when opponents averaged over 25 yards per kickoff return and nearly nine yards on punt returns.
The Tar Heels averaged 20 yards per return both on punts and kickoffs. The punt return average against Syracuse was significantly better than the 5.7 yards per return a year ago.
Though there were some special teams breakdowns, penalties on special teams have decreased, and Dan Orner got back on track by hitting field goals of 46 and 39 yards. Topher Roberts is doing well on kickoffs, as several were unreturnable by Syracuse. Punting average is still not what the Tar Heels are looking for there.
The Tar Heels have a bye week and a chance to see if there is any way to improve the defense before going on the road the following week to meet a ranked Wisconsin team.