"When you're struggling offensively – and that's where we are right now – you've got to look at what we're trying to do and say, ‘Okay, how much simplification will help these guys in the execution?'" UNC head coach Butch Davis said. "Because execution generally means that you're going to play a little bit better."
Thanks in large part to injuries and youth, the Tar Heel offense is averaging just 198.7 yards and 7.3 points in three contests against BCS opposition. And while the Eagles (3-2) represent a lesser challenge, hailing from the FCS side of the coin, Saturday will offer UNC's offense an opportunity to gain traction and start moving in the right direction.
Coordinator John Shoop has drawn sharp criticism for an offense that hasn't cracked the top-90 nationally during his tenure in Chapel Hill, but his boss has provided his full support.
"I think our offensive coaching staff is working extremely hard," Davis said. "I think John's bright. He's smart. And I don't think he needs defending."
Glaring concerns exist along the offensive line as expected starters Jonathan Cooper (guard) and Lowell Dyer (center) have been sidelined with injuries and replaced with first-time players Greg Elleby and Cam Holland, respectively. Add in starting left tackle Kyle Jolly's (ankle sprain) questionable status against the Eagles, and a geared down approach that focuses on improving the Heels' ground game will likely be showcased on Saturday.
North Carolina (3-2, 0-2 ACC) has gained just 91 rushing yards on 79 carries against BCS foes this season, good for a 1.15-yards-per-carry average. Overall, UNC is churning out 100.0 yard per game on a 3.13 yards-per-carry mark (103rd nationally, 10th ACC).
Shaun Draughn (74 rushes for 274 yards) may see his carries drop in quantity as Ryan Houston (34 rushes for 159 yards) has emerged as a viable weapon on the backfield. The Matthews, N.C. junior has not been tackled for a loss in '09.
But the Tar Heels' woes have extended beyond the offensive side of the ball. While the defense rank eighth nationally in total defense (251.2 ypg), 15th in scoring defense (14.6 ppg), fourth in pass defense (135.2) and fourth in tackles for a loss (9.4), Everett Withers' crew has only forced seven turnovers after tallying 13 through five games in '08. UNC ranks 106th nationally and 11th in the ACC with a minus-1.20 turnover margin.
As with most issues relating to the defense, the way to increase those turnovers begins up front.
"Playing behind a good defensive line is everything," cornerback Charles Brown said. "You don't want to be sitting out there for 10 seconds trying to cover somebody that can run like a rabbit. That's not a good thing. Sometimes before a series, I'll tell the defensive line, ‘Let's start up front – we want to play in the backfield.'
"If we're playing in the backfield, the quarterback can't see over guys like Marvin [Austin] and Robert [Quinn], so that makes it easier for us [to force turnovers]."
Georgia Southern sports a plus-0.20 turnover margin (6th SoCon), but North Carolina will be looking to take advantage of the Eagles' 113th ranking in sacks allowed (4.2). To offset some of that pressure, head coach Chris Hatcher installed a no-huddle offense that quarterback Lee Chapple (124-of-184 passing, 991 yards, 6 TD, 6 INT) excelled in last week's 26-21 victory at Wofford.
The sophomore signal caller only needs 33 more completions to break the Eagles' single season record, which speaks more to Paul Johnson's influence on the program than anything else. The current Georgia Tech head coach won national titles in Statesboro in 1999 and 2000.
North Carolina can ill afford to take another step back this week, even in victory. Davis constantly preaches that improvement on game day occurs through due diligence in practice, and that approach seems to have taken hold this week at Navy Fields.
With the offense's youth and inexperience contributing to poor performances over the past two Saturdays, the UNC defense took action this week to help the maturation process along.
"We've got young receivers and we pretty much got all up in them," cornerback Kendric Burney said. "[We were] physical. We didn't care about pass interference calls. We didn't care about anything. We just went after them. The fact of doing that was just to get the intensity in them and just let them know that you've got to come to play in college football. That's something that we didn't do these last two weeks."
With North Carolina's victory over The Citadel rendering Saturday's outcome meaningless in terms of bowl eligibility, the Tar Heels still must capitalize against the Eagles and build confidence heading into the second half of the season.