Defense: 'Little Things' Cause Big Problems

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- Immediately following North Carolina's 52-7 loss at Clemson, UNC coaches and players spoke of a lack of intensity. But the last two days the team went back to training camp and emerged from practice Wednesday evening with rejuvenated confidence and an optimistic outlook.

No team unit was more humiliated than the defense last weekend. The Tar Heels (1-3, 0-2 ACC) were trampled by a bevy of Tiger tailbacks to the tune of 324 net yards allowed via the run. The field side cannon in Death Valley sounded eight times – seven trumpeting rushing touchdowns.

"All we did was think about that game Saturday night," junior defensive end Hilee Taylor said. "People were calling me and saying, ‘Man, what's wrong?'"

Things were equally abysmal on the other side of the ball, but as UNC defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders says, "The defense can't punt."

However, after scouring the film of Saturday's game and a two-day regimen of rudimentary fundamentals, key Tar Heel defenders approached the locker room Wednesday night with a surprising amount of effervescence.

There's no doubt UNC came out flat and withered under the pressure of a brutal environment and a hot opponent. But, Taylor said, after breaking down the tape, most of the defense's tackling problems could be traced back to simple fundamentals.

"It was the little things, and we've gone back to training camp this week," Taylor said. "We can't lose the fundamentals. That's what's hurting us. Our physicality is right, but having our hands and our feet in the right place is what's missing."

Taylor says talent is not an issue.

"No, it's absolutely not," he said. "It's the little things. We are taught how to read an offensive lineman. If we read him the wrong way, the play can go for a long ways. When we watched the Clemson game as a group, we saw it was just little things we were doing that were killing us."

UNC hasn't lost to a bad team this year. Its 1-3 record should not come as that much of a shock, but the manner in which the defense has regressed – with the loss of only a few key players – has turned the Tar Heels fan base rabid.

Senior defensive end Melik Brown said, "We've been playing some young guys and battling some injuries up front, but sometimes we just make mistakes – like not having our hands in the right place. That can cause you to start reaching on defense. We've had some missed assignments, and we're not playing with the technique we know we should.

"It all starts up front, and that's why we've been having the breakdowns that we've been having. It's just little small techniques and attention to detail," he said.

Under John Bunting, Carolina is 3-2 when it has had two full weeks to prepare for opponents, with some of the program's most memorable victories among them. UNC is 0-5 in games prior to a bye since '01.

Last season, the Tar Heels returned from a 69-14 whipping at Louisville with ringing in their ears from the scoreboard fireworks at Papa John's Stadium. They bounced back and stymied Virginia, 7-5, two weeks later.

As many as eight key UNC players were injured during a 46-16 meltdown at Utah two years ago, but Carolina followed up the embarrassing defeat with a win for the ages – a solid, no-nonsense defeat over No. 4 Miami, 31-28.

In '02 and '03, UNC followed up home losses to Texas (52-21) and Syracuse (49-47 3OT), respectively, with losses to Georgia Tech (21-13) and at Wisconsin (38-27).

In an '01 season without any scheduled bye weeks, the events of "9/11" imposed one. What appeared would be a welcome home opener versus SMU was postponed, setting up what appeared to be impending doom for the 0-3 Tar Heels, as No. 6 Florida State was coming to town.

Carolina blew the Seminoles back to Tallahassee with a 41-9 defeat – the only time they've lost to UNC in 16 games.

Much has been written and said about the mighty heroics of Bunting-coached teams when their backs are against the wall. Few could argue the Tar Heels currently find themselves in the exact same predicament.

Next on the immediate horizon is a trip to Miami versus a team with an imposing tradition, but 1-2 overall record and unranked, about to host surprising Houston this Saturday.

Then things loosen up considerably on the Tar Heel schedule front – 10/14 South Florida, 10/19 (Thurs.) at Virginia, 10/28 Wake Forest.

If the UNC defense that has shown up in three of the last four games does not dramatically change its fortunes, it won't matter who the Tar Heels line up against week-in and week-out. However, if Bunting and Co. can conjure up more season-turning wizardry, then a respectable season could be the outcome.

"It's not the coaches' fault," Taylor said. "At Virginia Tech, we were doing the little things, but then we got away from that at Clemson. They sent us back to training camp, and we've been playing well."

"It's not that we don't know (fundamentals)," Brown added. "It's just that when you're actually in a game, it's hard to react sometimes. We've just got to take it from the practice field to the game field."

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