Bailing Out the Offense

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's offense ranks 10th or worse in the Atlantic Coast Conference in all five of the major statistical categories. But what's making John Shoop's squad look worse than the 2008 offense may be found in UNC's other two phases.

Let's get this out of the way first – none of Shoop's offenses during his three years in Chapel Hill have been prolific. The 2007 unit ranked 105th nationally in total offense (325.3 yards per game). That number improved to 92nd (321.4 ypg) in '08 and currently resides at 117th (282.2 ypg) midway through this season.

But in comparing the '09 offense to the '08 version through six games, the discrepancy between the offensive yardage totals (43.3 yards per game) doesn't match the difference in the scoring totals (31.8 ppg in '08 to 22.5 ppg in ‘09).

The primary culprit in the inconsistency lies in turnover margin. After North Carolina defeated Notre Dame last October to move to 5-1 on the season, UNC ranked first nationally in turnover margin with a plus-1.83 ratio. Currently holding a 4-2 record in '09, the Heels rank 90th with a minus-0.50 ratio. Prior to last week's victory over Georgia Southern, that number sat at minus-1.20 (106th).

As solid as the defense has played in its second season under Everett Withers' tutelage, forcing turnovers was a critical issue during the first five games. Special teams have also played a role in UNC's scoring struggles this fall, thanks to a new punter in Grant Schallock and the departure of all-world return man Brandon Tate to the NFL.

Consider this – North Carolina's worst starting field position through the first six games in '08 was its 28-yard-line against Miami. UNC began at the 33-yard-line or better in the other five contests. Through six games in '09, the Tar Heels' best starting field position against a FBS opponent has been their 28-yard-line (Georgia Tech).

Factor in five non-offensive touchdowns, 18 turnovers, four blocked punts and 337 interception return yards as hidden-yardage positives for the '08 team. This season, UNC has scored three non-offensive touchdowns, forced 13 turnovers and managed 147 defensive return yards.

The results are telling. T.J. Yates and Co. have been forced to churn out six touchdown drives of 70 yards or more this season, compared to just one in '08 through six games.

The impact of losing Tate, Hakeem Nicks and Brooks Foster has also been dramatic, in terms of big-play ability. In 18 touchdown drives through six games in '08, UNC needed just 5.7 plays to travel 56.7 yards. So far this season, North Carolina has required 7.1 plays to move 60 yards.

Those numbers improved drastically after factoring in two scoring drives totaling 38 yards against Georgia Southern, which is ultimately the point. If the Tar Heel defense can continue to force turnovers and put the offense in short-yardage situations, the offense will only look better down the stretch.

"You'd love that kind of formula every week," head coach Butch Davis said. "It's not something that you blatantly say, ‘Look, this is the only way that we're going to win.' You expect the defense to play well every single possession that they go out there. You want the special teams to help try to set up field position and to minimize field position by your coverage units… And you want the offense to go out and make their own field position by making first downs."

Fourteen of North Carolina's 42 points against the Eagles occurred on defensive touchdowns, while other turnovers provided the Tar Heels with short fields to score 14 more points.

This UNC defense leads the ACC in total defense (237.7 ypg), scoring defense (14.2) and pass defense (125.2 ypg), but nearly doubling its season turnover totals against the Eagles may be the most pleasing statistic of all.

"It was kind of like a relief," free safety Deunta Williams said. "But we've got to keep doing it. On Thursday, it will be important for us to do that as well [against Florida State]. We're going to face a very explosive offense, so the less they have the ball, the better."

The quote machine otherwise known as Marvin Austin may have put it best, saying, "I hope the dry spell is over."

If North Carolina is planning to return to a bowl game this season, it sure needs to be.

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