UNC defense changes focus

Published 8:43 pm Tuesday, September 27, 2011

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina spent the past week preparing to face an offense that runs the ball almost every play. Now the Tar Heels’ defense has to change focus to face the opposite extreme: an offense that loves to throw the ball.
The Tar Heels struggled to stop Georgia Tech’s triple-option running attack in the 35-28 road loss over the weekend, allowing nearly 500 total yards. When they travel to East Carolina on Saturday, they’ll face a senior quarterback directing a spread offense that has generated plenty of big scoring performances since being installed last season.
Interim coach Everett Withers could at least find one similarity.
“I think they’re similar in the fact that they both have a philosophy that you have to work on,” Withers said Monday. “This week it’ll be about being able to line up against a bunch of different formations that really spread the field and being able to stop the run and obviously stop the pass — because this team will have a little bit more emphasis on throwing the football down the field.”
The Pirates (1-2) averaged 37 points per game last year behind Dominique Davis, who threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 37 touchdowns last year. He threw for 260 yards and four touchdowns in the opening loss to South Carolina, though his season averages took a hit when Virginia Tech held him to 127 yards on 20-for-38 passing in the second game. Davis regrouped last week by throwing for 361 yards and three touchdowns in the 28-23 home win against UAB, though he threw three interceptions and the Pirates finished with a school record-tying seven turnovers.
Compare that to the Yellow Jackets, who earned 312 of their 496 total yards on the ground. Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington threw just 14 passes, though he finished with 184 yards and a touchdown.
While the Yellow Jackets spread their rushing yards between four players who racked up at least 59 yards, East Carolina will spread the production across a fleet of receivers led by Lance Lewis and redshirt freshman Justin Hardy. The Pirates also rely on a lot of short passes to supplement their ground game, allowing Davis to often get rid of the ball so quickly that defenders barely have time to mount much of a pass rush.
That could make things tougher for the Tar Heels (3-1) up front.
“One of our agendas as a defensive lineman this week is going to be to get our hands up,” end Quinton Coples said. “I think that’ll take care of some of the bubble screens and some of the passes he tries to throw in terms of quick passes and quick slants.”
The Tar Heels held up well against Davis and the Pirates last year, picking him off three times and returning one for a touchdown in a 42-17 victory in Chapel Hill. They can also aim to repeat the success of the Hokies, who sacked Davis five times and had him off his game to the point he often held the ball too long and repeatedly missed open receivers on Sept. 10.
If they don’t, East Carolina’s no-huddle attack could speed them up, then wear them down.
“We have to make sure we execute,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said, “and keep the fast pace up.”