Turner's Take: No Rest For The Wary
Note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 10 issue of CAROLINA: The Magazine, the official publication of UNC Athletics.
by Turner Walston, @TurnerWalston
CHAPEL HILL -- After a 40-20 win over Middle Tennessee on Saturday, Carolina football has the weekend off. It's an unusually early bye week for the Tar Heels, who will use the time to polish up offensive and defensive schemes and get healthy.
This will be the third time in four seasons that Carolina has been off on the Saturday prior to facing Georgia Tech and Paul Johnson's flexbone offense. Carolina had extra time to prepare for the Yellow Jackets in 2010 and 2012. The bye hasn't helped the Tar Heels beat the Yellow Jackets, however; Johnson's Tech teams are 4-1 against the Heels, with Carolina's lone win coming in 2008. Incidentally, that was the last time the Tar Heels won the week following a bye.
Still, it's a luxury to have an extra week to prepare for an offense that the Tar Heels will see but once on the season. "I hope it helps," Larry Fedora said of the bye week. "We had it last year, and we weren't successful with it, but we're going to try to get as many reps as we possibly can to get ready for our conference opener."
Last November in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels and Yellow Jackets played the highest-scoring game in Atlantic Coast Conference history, a 68-50 Georgia Tech win. Carolina led 36-34 early in the second half, but Georgia Tech reeled off 17 straight points. The Tar Heels closed to within eight at 58-50 before Orwin Smith and Chris Tanner provided the final margin. The two teams combined for 1,085 yards of total offense and together punted just five times.
Tar Heel bandit Darius Lipford sat out the 2012 season with a torn ACL. As a spectator, he had a unique perspective on the loss last season. Back on the field in 2013, Lipford identified an area that needs improvement before the Tar Heels face Johnson's offense again. "Definitely, don't let them pass the ball," he said.
Last season, Georgia Tech completed just seven of 12 passes versus the Tar Heels, but they went for 208 yards, their highest total against an FBS opponent on the season. "They're a good running team. The triple-option is very hard to scheme against," Lipford said. "It's really hard, all the cut blocks and playing the different reads, all the play-action, but last year it caught us off-guard that they were able to throw the ball more, so we'll definitely emphasize making sure that our coverage is tight and making sure we continue to get better stopping the run."
In his first season at Carolina, linebackers coach Ron West has tried to prepare his charges for the cut blocks, blocks below the waist, they are certain to see in Atlanta. "We even put it in our pregame warmups," Lipford said. "We've had a lot more exposure to the cut blocks, and it's not going to be such a shock as it would be for teams that don't really practice it."
Georgia Tech has a knack for frustrating a defense, running what looks like the same play over and over but with several ways to go (hence the name "triple option") and attempting to take out defenders' legs. In preparing to play the Yellow Jackets in years past, Tar Heels have preached "assignment football." That is, staying within yourself, not taking chances outside of the defensive scheme and trusting your teammates.
It's one thing to say that prior to the kickoff, but it's another to decide against leaping for what looks to be a guaranteed tackle. Of course, nothing is guaranteed with Paul Johnson across the field. "We have to ingrain that in guys' heads," defensive end Kareem Martin said. "Everybody's not going to have a lot of tackles. It's probably going to be one or two guys that have 10, 12, 15 tackles, and we have to be OK with that. You have to put the team before yourself going into this game, and if we can do that as a defense, we'll win the game."
Meanwhile, the Tar Heel offense will have to stay disciplined playing against a team that, like them, thrives on controlling the tempo of the game. "Mentally, we have to be stronger than them," tailback A.J. Blue said. "We have to start off fast, and we have to get them early."
Recently Fedora has expressed frustration at the Tar Heel running game. Through two games, Carolina is averaging slightly more than three yards per carry (down from 5.1 a season ago) and so far has not gotten the push up front that the coaching staff would like to see. "I'm sure it's a combination of a lot of things," the head coach said after the win over Middle Tennessee. "I don't think it's one guy that's not doing his job. That would be easy to see in the game. I think it's a multitude of things."
For his part, Blue said it's helpful to have an additional week to get the offense on the same page. "We plan on just working on our timing," he said. "When it comes down to it, an offensive scheme is like synchronized swimming. Everybody's got to be on the same page, and everybody's got to do the right thing or else it won't work."
Now at 1-1 on the season, Carolina has two weeks of their own film to study and two weeks to prepare for Georgia Tech. The ACC's Coastal Division race is shaping up to be a tight one, and the Tar Heels know how important a win in Atlanta would be. "They're always in contention for the Coastal Division title," Martin said. "One of our main goals is to win it, so we need all the time we can get to prepare for the offense."