North Carolina has started the season 1-3, a huge surprise considering many expected this team to compete for the Coastal crown. So that has gotten us to wonder, what has been the bigger disappointment at UNC this season -- the offense or the defense?
Heather Dinich says: Deee-fense
We knew North Carolina’s offense would go through a bit of a transition. It was naïve to think otherwise. With the losses of standout running back Giovani Bernard and his lead blocker Jonathan Cooper to the NFL, it was all but inevitable there would be some growing pains.
What’s the defense’s excuse?
Andrea will argue that UNC’s offense has been the bigger disappointment, but Bryn Renner & Co. didn’t allow East Carolina 603 total yards -- the second-highest total ever allowed by UNC at home. Saturday’s 55-31 loss to the Pirates was embarrassing, but hey, at least Renner found a way to throw three touchdown passes. You’d think that on a day when your quarterback throws for a career-high 366 yards and three touchdowns it would be enough to win the game.
Unless, of course, the quarterback is playing with the UNC D.
The Tar Heels allowed ECU 36 first downs. The Pirates ran 101 plays -- the most plays by an opponent against UNC. Ever. Vintavious Cooper ran for a career-high 186 yards. He may as well have been running on a treadmill for how much was in his way. How far the defense has fallen in a year, since last season when UNC held ECU quarterback Shane Carden without a touchdown in a 27-6 win.
On Saturday, North Carolina couldn’t stop the run. It lost the battle up front. There were missed tackles all over the field. And it was hardly the first porous performance.
For four straight games, North Carolina has allowed a 100-yard rusher and at least 400 total yards. Had David Sims eeked out one more yard for Georgia Tech, UNC would have allowed the Yellow Jackets two 100-yard rushers. It was a critical Coastal Division game UNC could have won, had it not squandered first-half leads of 13-0 and 20-7.
This is a secondary that returned all four starters from a group that ranked No. 20 in the country last year with 16 interceptions. Senior defensive end Kareem Martin was among the ACC’s leaders in tackles for loss last year.
Hasn’t mattered one bit.
UNC enters Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech ranked No. 105 in the country in total defense, No. 112 in rushing defense, No. 108 in third-down conversion defense, No. 103 in first-down defense, and tied for No. 93 in scoring defense. These guys could make the Hokies’ pedestrian offense look like one of the best in the ACC.
There’s certainly plenty of blame to go around in Chapel Hill, on both sides of the ball, but the math is simple: If your offense can only score 25.3 points per game, the defense can’t allow 32.5.
Andrea Adelson says: _ffense
The easy answer for the biggest disappointment at North Carolina is the defense. But that cannot be true, not when this was a mediocre group a season ago that nobody anticipated would become elite in just a year.
No, the biggest disappointment has to be the offense, which ranks among the worst in the ACC. Yes, we knew it would be a struggle without Bernard and three new starters on the offensive line. But North Carolina returned a veteran quarterback in Renner, the best tight end in the league in Eric Ebron and talented young receivers. Surely, that would be enough to get North Carolina through as it worked on its run game.
But alas, we have come to see just how valuable Bernard was to this team a year ago. North Carolina has gone from having the No. 1 rusher in the league to the worst rushing offense in the ACC, averaging just about 100 yards on the ground per game. That, in turn, has caused one of the biggest offensive downfalls in the entire nation. North Carolina has tumbled from No. 14 in total offense to No. 75, averaging just 397 yards per game. Only West Virginia and Louisiana Tech have had steeper drops.
North Carolina only has one game with 500 yards total offense this year. Last year, it had four. The two games North Carolina has failed to reach 400 yards under coach Larry Fedora came this season, too, against South Carolina and Georgia Tech.
The failures we have seen from this offense have put Fedora into uncharted territory. Fedora has found success everywhere he has been with his version of the spread, hurry-up offense. He has simply plugged new players into starting roles and chugged along from there.
In his first season at Southern Miss, the offense broke 36 school records. His offense gained over 5,000 yards of offense all four years he was there, including a record 6,459 yards in his final year, 2011. Then last year, he came into North Carolina and the Tar Heels set more than 35 team and individual marks, including total points, points per game and total offense.
Throughout his career, Fedora has achieved these numbers with balance. In every previous season as a head coach, his teams averaged at least 181 yards rushing per game. Without that balance this year, though, North Carolina is on pace to total less than 5,000 total yards of offense for the first time in Fedora’s career as a head coach.
Fedora has built his reputation on offense. But his offense is simply doing him no favors this year.