No. 8 UNC’s defense prepares for test vs. No. 1 Clemson
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) The defensive turnaround at North Carolina is one of the major reasons the No. 8 Tar Heels have their highest ranking in nearly two decades and reached the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Still, that unit has had a few hiccups in recent weeks, and it hasn't faced an offense quite like the one it will see in Saturday's matchup with top-ranked Clemson.
''I think our defense can play well enough to put us in a position to win,'' coach Larry Fedora said simply Monday.
The season has been full of historic accomplishments for the Coastal Division champion Tar Heels (11-1, 8-0 ACC, No. 14 CFP). They are only the fourth team in program history and first since 1997 to win 11 games. They had never gone 8-0 in ACC play and had never gone unbeaten in league play since winning their last ACC title in 1980.
And while the offense ranks among the nation's best, none of that would have been possible without the resurrection of a defense that was historically awful only a year earlier.
North Carolina surrendered program records of 6,472 yards (497.8) and 507 points (39 per game) in a 4-2-5 scheme in 2014, leading to an overhaul of the defensive staff that included the arrival of former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as coordinator. With Chizik taking a ''less is more philosophy,'' that unit has moved to a 4-3 base scheme with multiple looks while allowing 394.9 yards this year.
The Tar Heels also ranked tied for 19th nationally by allowing 20.8 points per game in what has amounted to a bend-but-don't-break approach.
''The more you do, the less you get reps at certain things because you've got to work them against all these different thing that (offenses) do,'' Chizik said last week. ''The more complicated and the more moving parts to an offense, the less we do. I've always been that way.''
The Tigers (12-0, 8-0, No. 1 CFP) took advantage of UNC's struggles last year, with Deshaun Watson throwing for 435 yards and a school-record six touchdown passes in a 50-35 win. Four of those TD throws were at least 30 yards.
This year's Tigers rank No. 14 nationally in total offense (502.5 yards per game) and 15th in scoring (37.9 points).
''I think the biggest thing is they just have not given up near (the amount of ) big plays,'' Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. ''They gave up a lot of big plays on them. We had a bunch of big plays on them, and that's probably the biggest thing, is they've been very sound in what they've done.''
That unit has spent much of November in an unusual position: playing entire second halves against ACC opponents in what amounted to garbage time with the outcome long since decided by the Tar Heels' overwhelming starts.
UNC led 38-10 by halftime of its 66-31 win against Duke on Nov. 7, led 31-0 at halftime and 45-0 in the third quarter of a 59-21 win against Miami the next week, then jumped to a 35-7 lead in the first quarter of Saturday's 45-34 win at rival North Carolina State.
The Tar Heels surrendered 533 yards to Duke in a performance that Chizik said wasn't good enough. They failed to protect a 24-10 lead in the final 4 1/2 minutes of regulation before winning in overtime at Virginia Tech, then surrendered 514 yards and allowed N.C. State to convert 12 of 21 third downs (57 percent).
Fedora took the blame for that Monday, saying he told Chizik to play more conservatively to avoid surrendering any big plays to get the Wolfpack back in it.
Either way, the Tar Heels figure they can do more.
''I really do think we gave up too many points this past week, gave up too many yards,'' UNC linebacker Shakeel Rashad said. ''And we have to go back and fix that. But at the same time, it's not like we're losing confidence over it, because everything that we're messing up is very fixable.''
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