Four Downs: UNC's loss to ECU a true team defeat

BY foxsports • September 28, 2013

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- There weren't many -- if any -- positives to take away from UNC's 55-38 home loss to East Carolina that dropped the Tar Heels to 1-3 on the year, but there were plenty of negatives. Considering UNC has a trip to Virginia Tech next weekend and a Thursday night game against Miami after that, their season is teetering on the brink if they can't improve in some important areas, and quickly.
1. It's time to talk about the defense. Last year, it was supposedly an issue of the UNC defensive players learning a new system and scheme. But the first warning signs that it might not be working came when the defense seemingly got worse as the year wore on. It was hard to say early this season how far the defense had come -- it gave up big plays to South Carolina, but still held the Gamecocks to a season-low 27 points, then it allowed 20 to Middle Tennessee State, mostly late.
The Georgia Tech game, though, seemed to indicate that this defense had come a long way. A big chunk of the yards the Tar Heels surrendered came late in the game, when the defense couldn’t seem to get off the field and the offense couldn’t stay on it. It wasn't a perfect performance by any means, but it wasn’t as bad as giving up 68 points to the Yellow Jackets as they did a year ago. (Progress!)
The Pirates ran 101 plays and scored 55 points, racked up 603 yards of offense and had 36 (!!!) first downs. Essentially, they took a style of offense the UNC defense has seen plenty in training camp -- spread, up-tempo -- and made it look as if it was as new to the Tar Heels as the Georgia Tech option attack.
But then East Carolina came to town and just dominated the Tar Heels up front, giving quarterback Shane Carden plenty of time to throw (he was 32-of-47 for 376 yards and wasn't sacked). What was worse is that a team that doesn't run the ball a lot (or effectively, usually) was able to do whatever it wanted in that regard, and Vintavious Cooper finished with a career-high 186 yards on 35 carries. 
UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said that the ECU scheme by offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (who did a masterful job) was designed to go away from UNC's playmakers on defense on the edge (hybrid linebacker/ends Norkeithus Otis and Darius Lipford). Schoettmer said the Pirates tightened their splits and ran it up the middle, then had the backs bounce it outside and force UNC's secondary to make tackles. They could not. 
Last week, UNC head coach Larry Fedora said that the defense missed 21 tackles against Georgia Tech, which was far too many. If UNC missed fewer than 30 tackles against ECU, it would be stunning. 
"The good thing about it is we have guys in position to make plays, but we just aren't finishing," Schoettmer said. "We've got some young guys out there, including myself. ... I think as the season progresses, we'll get better at that. But that's a glaring mistake that we've got to correct now because you can’t have that many missed tackles in a game."
2. Penalties, penalties, penalties. In their first two games, the Tar Heels had ten penalties for 105 yards. Not great, but not terrible. In the last two games, though, they have been flagged 17 times for 153 yards. The offense has had six of those penalties, two of which took touchdowns off the board (one in each game). 
The biggest problem with the penalties has been that they are putting the UNC offense behind schedule. They have 14 penalties on the season (including a ridiculous six in the South Carolina game alone). Perhaps the more important part of this, though, is that it seems the Tar Heels can’t overcome whatever adverse situations they put themselves in offensively. 
"It's deflating, especially with our offense, the way we do it when you get a first down, you're rolling and you move the ball, everyone's running around making big plays all over the field," UNC left tackle James Hurst said. "And then when it comes back, it's kind of like, it kills all our tempo and people are kind of looking at each other like, 'What do you do here?' Older guys, myself included, are going to have to step up and try to guide everybody."
The defense wasn't immune against East Carolina, either. They had five penalties, three of which gave ECU a first down. Not that the Pirates had much trouble getting first downs, mind you, but it just added to the entire look of being undisciplined. 
"As I've said before, we've got a long way to go. Still too many missed tackles defensively, still too many penalties, not playing smart...We've still got to get a lot better," Fedora said. 
3. Are the Tar Heels just not all that good? This is not meant as disrespect to East Carolina. The Pirates played great, and they had a legit chance to beat Virginia Tech at home two weeks ago. They are the real deal. But a team like North Carolina should certainly at least be able to hang with a Conference USA team at home. That's not too crazy an expectation. Instead, they were essentially dominated on their own field.
Senior tailback A.J. Blue is a fifth-year senior, and he's been through quite a bit himself. His teammates respect him. Before Fedora spoke to the team, he did. And he told his teammates what he felt he saw both before and during the game itself, and he didn't hold back.
"I just basically told them the second we strapped up our cleats and our pads that certain guys knew they weren't going to give it 100 percent out there today," Blue said. "That probably comes from lack of focus, lack of preparation. I think guys were kind of complacent today. The statistics, ECU hasn't beat us here in a long time...That kind of carried over into some guys' minds and that was the mindset of the team, and it hurt us today."
Blue has been trying to tell his teammates this from Day 1, though. This isn't a cohesive team. The defense is still struggling with communication issues, and the offense doesn’t seem to trust each other quite yet. And that's just on the field. Blue says that not everyone on the UNC roster is on board.
"I try to tell them the only way we can win and bring this together and we all come together. At this point, we’re kind of feeling like we’ve got a couple front-runners," Blue said. "At the end of the day, we've just got to come together and make plays and we've got to be there for each other. The lack of being my brother’s keeper is the reason why we’re 1-3 right now."
Fedora has always maintained this team isn't that far away from being good, that the program isn’t far from turning the corner. He was asked after the game if he was reevaluating those expectations after what happened.
He paused, and sighed before answering. "My expectations aren't going to change for this football team. They're not going to change. Whether we meet those expectations, I don't know," Fedora said. 
"But I can tell you this, we're going to keep working extremely hard to meet those expectations. But I'm not going to lower my expectations because of a poor performance. That's not going to happen."
4. T.J. Thorpe. UNC's kickoff returner/wide receiver hasn't been truly healthy in a long time (he broke his foot in fall camp last year, missed the 2012 season and then broke his foot again in spring practice the next year). He hadn't played in a game since 2011 before the season started, and in his first game back at South Carolina, he fumbled a kickoff return. He didn't play at Georgia Tech. 
But he had six catches for 70 yards and a touchdown against ECU, plus seven kickoff returns for 153 yards (a long of 45). He's a game-changer for the Tar Heels on special teams, and his potential emergence as a consistent receiver for UNC is a positive development. To date, the only reliable target quarterback Bryn Renner has had has been tight end Eric Ebron. 


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