Winless North Carolina struggling to get stops on defense

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) scores as North Carolina's Cayson Collins (23) tries to make the tackle during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. Louisville won 47-35. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina’s veteran-filled defense was expected to be dependable enough to provide some cover for an inexperienced offense. Instead, the Tar Heels’ defense has been inept.

The Tar Heels rank last among power-conference teams by surrendering 587 yards per game, while they rank next to last among those 64 schools by allowing 41 points per game. And there’s plenty of other ugly numbers that help explain why the Tar Heels are 0-2 for the first time since 2010.

Coach Larry Fedora said Monday the team had reviewed the film from Saturday’s loss to Louisville and corrected the mistakes. Then again, he won’t be 100 percent sure that they have the problems fixed until they play again Saturday at Old Dominion.

”That’s always concerning to me, and really trying to make sure I find out why,” Fedora said. ”That’s the biggest thing. That’s my fear, that I don’t discover really why. When we’re putting in a game plan and the coach says, `OK, you guys understand that?’ And everybody says, `Yes.’ Then you assume that they know it.

”But then you get out on Saturday and they don’t make that adjustment, well then they obviously didn’t know it. So we’ve got to do a really good job.”

More alarming is the fact that the Tar Heels entered the year with seven returning starters and their top three tacklers back, while the promotion of linebackers coach John Papuchis to coordinator offered continuity after the departure of Gene Chizik for family reasons.

Chizik inherited a historically bad defense in 2014 and made it adequate, which was more than enough help for Fedora’s high-scoring offense as the Tar Heels reached the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in 2015 and was in contention into November to go back last year.

But things have started in a way that’s awfully reminiscent of that 2014 team.

First the Tar Heels surrendered 469 yards to California – 363 yards coming from a quarterback who had never thrown a college pass – in the 35-30 home loss. Then came the Cardinals and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, who accounted for 525 total yards and six touchdowns in a highlight-filled performance. And the Cardinals finished with 705 total yards – the most ever by a UNC opponent in its Kenan Stadium home – in the 47-35 win.

Afterward, Fedora immediately noted that ”we weren’t even close to receivers” while multiple UNC players kept going back to the same word.

”Honestly, communication,” linebacker Cayson Collins said. ”It’s really just everybody being on the same page. That’s it.”

Fedora offered a bit more specific analysis Monday.

”It means, first of all, based on a formation, you’ve got to communicate the coverage that you’re going to run with each other,” Fedora said. ”Based on splits, that adjusts some of the coverages and how you’re going to decipher those routes.

”And then in the middle of the route, there’s communication that has to be made. If you’re dropping that guy to pick someone else up and a crosser is coming, you’ve got to let the guy next to you so he’s picking the guy up.”

The Tar Heels now find themselves near the bottom of just about every major defensive category nationally. The Tar Heels have surrendered four touchdowns of at least 40 yards, and they allowed Cal and Louisville to convert 52 percent of their third downs.

Facing Jackson certainly magnified the Tar Heels’ defensive troubles, but things have to get better quickly.

”I didn’t play a perfect game, I don’t think nobody did,” safety Donnie Miles said Saturday. ”But . I don’t think it’s from the sideline, I don’t think it’s from the coaches. I think as players we’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror because we’re the ones out there playing, giving up plays.”

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