No longer passive, UNC's pass defense is a weapon
When North Carolina entered the locker room last Saturday with a 21-0 halftime lead against Virginia, the Tar Heels knew the Cavaliers would have to start passing in order to catch up.
Early in the year – when UNC was plagued by missed assignments, poor tackling and communication mix-ups – the thought of a team testing UNC’s secondary may have been cause for concern. But the Tar Heels have become much harder to pass against heading into Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh (12:30 p.m., WRAL).
“The (defensive backs) were excited because they knew they were going to throw it,” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said. “They knew that was opportunities for us. You start thinking that way, that I want you to bring it my way, that's usually a good thing."
Sure enough, safeties Dominique Green and Tre Boston both had interceptions in the second half against Virginia – Green returned his 62 yards for a touchdown – as UNC (4-5, 3-3 ACC) cruised to its third straight win.
The improvement in pass defense has been a critical factor as the team bounced back from a 1-5 start. The Tar Heels have allowed just one passing touchdown and intercepted six passes in their past four games, and have allowed an average of 146.3 passing yards during their current three-game winning streak.
“In the past we played not to mess up,” senior cornerback Jabari Price said. “Now we’re playing to make plays.”
After giving up 14 passes of more than 25 yards through six weeks, including plays of 83, 68 and 65 yards, the Tar Heels have only allowed two 25-yarders in the last three games.
Fedora said the biggest difference now is confidence, though there are other factors.
“I think we're doing a better job of getting pressure on the quarterback,” Fedora said. “They're not having to cover forever. The confidence alone and we're getting some picks and that builds your confidence and now you want the team to throw the ball. It's, ‘Let's get this run stopped so we can make then throw the ball.’”
Price said that stopping the 1-5 slide to start the season was “the most difficult thing I had to do in my life.” UNC had won at least seven games in each of his first three seasons, and he had never experienced a four-game losing streak.
After the fifth loss, a last-minute defeat at home against Miami, Price received a text from Fedora.
“He didn’t want the team to get complacent with that losing feeling,” Price said. “That was my biggest fear, everyone thinking it was a norm, and it’s not. It was the hardest thing I had to do but we actually started practicing harder and everyone bought what we were selling.”
Now another winning season is in sight – after Pitt, UNC hosts Old Dominion (Nov. 23) and Duke (Nov. 30) – and the rejuvenated pass defense is a big reason why.
RASHAD COMES BACK
After being initially ruled as out for the year on UNC’s injury reports, sophomore bandit Shakeel Rashad made his first appearance of the season against Virginia and recorded a sack in the third quarter.
Rashad injured his knee on the first day of training camp and was expected to take a medical redshirt, but he was ahead of schedule during his rehab and he was eager to get back on the field.
“When we had a decision to make it was, 'Alright, can he help us win?'” Fedora said. “And he wanted to play. So it was, ‘Let's go.’ We're glad to have him back."
Rashad solidifies a position that has seen three different starters because of injuries to Norkeithus Otis and Darius Lipford. True freshman Mikey Bart made his second start against the Cavaliers.
Otis, Lipford and Bart are all listed as possible starters on the depth chart against Pitt that was released Monday, with Rashad listed as a backup.
ANOTHER EARLY START
North Carolina’s home game against Old Dominion on Nov. 23 will kick off at noon and will be televised by Fox Sports Carolinas, the ACC announced Monday.
It will be the eighth time in UNC’s first 11 games – and the eighth time in nine Saturday games – that the Tar Heels will start at either noon or 12:30 p.m.
The only exceptions have been previously-scheduled ESPN Thursday night games against South Carolina and Miami and a 3:30 p.m. Saturday game against Boston College.