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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC football looks to reset, fix defensive woes before upcoming Campbell game

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UNC head coach Mack Brown returns to the sideline during the football game against Appalachian State at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. UNC squeezed past Appalachian State 40-34.

Unacceptable, awful and disastrous — all these words have been used by the UNC football coaching staff to characterize the team's defensive play in its 46-42 loss to Georgia Tech. 

Regressive, however, might be the most appropriate word to describe the downward trajectory of the UNC football team.

The Tar Heels will have a chance to clean up their execution and return to playing quality football this weekend when they host the Campbell Fighting Camels, who are currently ranked eighth of the 15 teams in the Coastal Athletic Association. Here are two things UNC must address to get its season back on track: 

Closing out games and winning the fourth

Football is not a three-quarter game. However, the past two weeks North Carolina has played like it is, with the fourth quarter being an Achilles' heel for the Tar Heels. 

After the 31-27 loss to Virginia, head coach Mack Brown spoke about top teams that struggled that week but ultimately found a way to finish out close games – like USC and Texas – and expressed concern about UNC’s inability to do the same and close games, even when leading.

Against Georgia Tech, UNC struggled with more of the same. North Carolina entered the final quarter leading by 11 after holding the Yellow Jackets scoreless in a stout third quarter showing. But that’s when it all came crashing down. 

At the beginning of the fourth, Georgia Tech tore down the field in nine plays to make it a one-score game. The Tar Heels answered with a touchdown. Then, the Yellow Jackets responded with two. 

UNC has been outscored by opponents 56 to 33 in the fourth quarter this season. Brown is trying to figure out why — and how.

“We're looking at everything, because you got to win in fourth quarters,” he said.

Looking toward this week, Campbell may not seem like the most formidable opponent, as the Camels have taken full advantage of the parity that the transfer portal has to offer, pulling in players from UCLA, N.C. State, Wake Forest, LSU and Florida State, including highly recruited linebacker Antoine Sampah and talented pass rusher George Wilson.

“Right now we're just putting the game plan together,” senior jack Kaimon Rucker said at a press conference on Tuesday. “We don't have everything set in for sure yet but the coaches have a good plan going into this week."

Fixing the inconsistent defense 

It all comes down to the age-old football mantra: “Offense wins games, defense wins championships.” But, 42 points only go so far. Through five conference games, UNC ranks first in the ACC in points per game, while its defense ranks 10th in points allowed per contest.

Plain and simple: The defense has to step it up. And, according to defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, stepping up starts from the top.  

“It's all coaching-related," Chizik said. "We have to put them in a better position to be successful.” 

Both Chizik and Brown cited an instability in defensive tempo as the culprit for some of the missteps of the past two weeks. Rucker summed up the troubles by saying the defense hasn’t “put all the puzzle pieces together.”

Opponents have been remarkably successful on the ground against the Tar Heel defense — which allowed 228 and 348 net rushing yards against Virginia and Georgia Tech, respectively. 

The Yellow Jackets lit UNC up in the fourth quarter, running for 246 yards in the final frame — including rushes of 70 and 52 yards, respectively. The North Carolina defense struggled to adjust as Georgia Tech kept the pressure on with a no-huddle, uptempo offense.

“We have to run fit better, especially when the tempo is fast and it's going pretty quick. And then we got to do a better job this late in the season,” Chizik said. “We got to do a better job of working back the fundamentals of being able to tackle an open space.”

In the pair of losses, the Tar Heels haven't stopped opponents' rushing game at crucial times, allowing big plays in the form of leakage yards, bubble screens or what Chizik called “catastrophic runs.”

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After two weeks full of promises of adjusting to the aforementioned issues, only Saturday will tell if the Tar Heels have found the rails or run off them altogether. 

@gracegnugent

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com