A quick look at UNC football’s 2-0 record may instill confidence heading into this Saturday’s Georgia State matchup in Atlanta, but an examination of the box score from North Carolina’s 63-61 win over Appalachian State on Saturday certainly does not.
The Tar Heels allowed six touchdowns in the final quarter against the Mountaineers, a feat neither head coach Mack Brown nor assistant head coach for the defense Gene Chizik could remember happening before.
“We could not have messed it up more,” Brown said. “We messed up everything we could possibly mess up and still won, so there are some positives.”
Gearing up for a Panthers team that led South Carolina 14-12 in the third quarter in its first game of the season, UNC will have to shape up its defense, make the easy tweaks and stop Georgia State’s run game if the Tar Heels hope to continue their new win streak on the road.
Stopping the run game
On Saturday, UNC will face a Georgia State team that ranked second in rushing in the Sun Belt Conference last season.
The Panthers are returning their top three running backs in seniors Tucker Gregg, Darren Grainger and Jamyest Williams, with the latter leading his team with 76 rushing yards against South Carolina.
After holding FAMU to an impressive 56 yards on the ground in their first game, the Tar Heels gave up 288 rushing yards to App State. For Chizik, many of the issues he saw on Saturday started in the defensive front.
“The beginning of the problem was you got guys that are running up the field and making these lanes to run in much greater than they need to be," Chizik said. "So, it’s not always just the product of a guy missing a tackle, a lot of time it’s the product of the front making it more difficult to make those tackles because we’re not doing some things right.”
When asked what he needed to see from the defensive line moving forward, Chizik emphasized playing with great pad level, playing physically and striking blocks. He also noted the importance of making adjustments in gap coverage, which will be essential to shutting down the high-powered attack.
Controlling the controllables
“There are too many pieces that are wrong,” Brown said when asked about the film review of UNC’s defense on Saturday. “You can’t answer it in one easy thing, or it would be easy to fix."
One easy piece to correct, however, is penalties.
This year, Brown has made a point to emphasize controlling these "controllables" after a 2021 season that saw UNC rank at the very bottom of the ACC in penalties.
In the Tar Heels’ game against App State, UNC gave up 130 penalty yards on 12 calls, compared to the Mountaineers' 80 yards on 7 calls.
“We had several opportunities to get off the field and then we had penalties,” Chizik said. “I think special teams did a good job of giving us long fields where they had to drive the ball. There are times where we would get ahead of the chains and then we’d get a penalty.”
For a team like UNC that’s shown great inconsistencies on defense, the ability to capitalize on every chance to end a drive rather than being held back by penalties will be crucial against Georgia State.
In the fourth quarter alone, UNC allowed six plays where the Mountaineers gained 20 or more yards. Against an equally productive offense, the Tar Heels will have little room to give up "explosives", as Brown calls them.
“We gave up I think 21 explosives, which is absolutely ridiculous, and only three of those explosives were in the second and third quarters,” Brown said.
Brown emphasized drilling angles and tackling basics in practice to right this wrong. He said ultimately, however, the execution must be there to stop big yardage gains from the Panthers in the air or on the ground.
Chizik said the execution of his defense was the biggest positive from North Carolina's effective second and third quarters Saturday, which saw the Tar Heels hold the Mountaineers to seven points. Against Georgia State, UNC must consider using more of its depth to prevent the late-game burnout that was shown against the Mountaineers.
“We’re trying to play more people,” Chizik said. “We feel like that’s imperative, that we can play more people. But it’s a process, we’re learning from each other.”
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