After five games, there are few encouraging numbers for North Carolina, which hosts Notre Dame on Saturday at Kenan Stadium. The 1-4 record is certainly not encouraging. Nor is the number of players – 13 and counting – who have been lost for the season.
The vast majority of the national statistical rankings are bleak. The Tar Heels rank 79th nationally in yards per game (395.2), and 72nd in yards per play (5.66). Compared to UNC’s usual standard on offense under coach Larry Fedora, the production has been especially poor – though it’s impossible to evaluate the lack of efficiency without acknowledging UNC’s significant injury toll.
Defensively, it’s worse. UNC is 113th nationally in total defense (466.8 yards allowed per game) and 107th in yards per play allowed (6.21). And that’s even with some considerable defensive improvement in the past two weeks, albeit improvement that didn’t necessarily show up in the final box scores that told that numerical tales of defeats against Duke and Georgia Tech.
None of the numbers surrounding UNC’s poor start are especially good. The two worst numbers, though, are these: 28.8 percent, and 42.8 percent.
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Those represent what UNC has done on offense, and on defense, on third down. The Tar Heels have converted only 28.8 percent of their third downs, which ranks 125th nationally (and worst among major-conference teams). Meanwhile, their opponents have converted 42.8 percent of their own third downs, and the Tar Heels rank 94th nationally in stopping teams on third down.
It’s arguable that nothing – aside from injuries – has doomed UNC more than its inability to succeed on third down. Defensively, the Tar Heels haven’t been able to get off the field enough on third down, which leads to longer drives, which leads to more fatigue, which leads to the kind of second-half breakdowns that have become common.
Offensively, only a handful of teams in the country – and none from a major conference – have been worse at sustaining drives on third down. That inability leads to more punts, which leads to more times UNC is reliant on its defense, which leads to the defense’s own third-down woes. A vicious cycle it has been for the Tar Heels, and one on offense, especially, that is new under Fedora.
During Fedora’s first five seasons at UNC, the Tar Heels converted at least 41 percent of their third downs. The past two seasons, in 2015 and 2016, UNC was among the best teams in the country at converting third downs. Through five games this season the Tar Heels have converted but 19 of their 66 third downs.
“Offensively, it’s just a lack of execution,” Fedora said earlier this week, using an evergreen phrase he’s used to describe an assortment of his team’s problems. “It’s just a breakdown here, or a breakdown there. There’s no secret to it.
“Defensively, there’s been some really good ones and then there’s been some that we’ve just given up, you know? In a game last week we got off the field on third down three series in a row, and we give up a long yardage one. So it’s focus, and making sure everybody does their job.”
The kind of explanation Fedora provided for the third-down problems applies elsewhere, too. Execution has been a problem not only on third downs, but on first downs and second downs. The lack of execution has afflicted the Tar Heels in plays routine and more complicated.
Injuries have certainly contributed, especially on offense. This likely would have been a rebuilding year, offensively, even if the Tar Heels remained healthy. Yet they have not. They have become the most injury-prone team in the country, and at least three wide receivers, and perhaps a fourth, have been lost to the season due to injury. Receiver was already UNC’s thinnest position entering the year.
If the offensive problems on third downs are more understandable due to injuries, the deficiencies on defense are less so. The defense, too, has suffered bad injury luck – starting middle linebacker Andre Smith has been lost for the season, and defensive tackle Jalen Dalton hasn’t played since the second week of the season – but the defense hasn’t endured the kind of casualties the offense has experienced.
And yet, still, UNC’s defense has labored on third down almost as much as its offense. The differences relative to the historical precedent are less stark, at least. During Fedora’s tenure, UNC has never been a particularly good defensive team on third down, perhaps outside of the 2012 season, when the Tar Heels ranked 39th nationally in third-down defense.
UNC’s national ranking since then: 67th, 124th, 104th, 93rd and, now, 94th after five games.
John Papuchis, the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator, said earlier this week that UNC’s goal every game is stop teams on third down 65 percent of the time. UNC has only done that once this season, during the 53-23 victory at Old Dominion.
“We’re not far off, but we’ve got to close the gap on where we want to be,” Papuchis said. “We want to be a 65 percent stop team and right now we’re more of a 60 percent range. And that’s got to be better in the second half of the season. One or two third-down stops a game will get us to where we want to be.”
A play here, a play there: That, Fedora and his staff believe, has been the difference between success and failure. Through five games, though, those plays have more often than not gone the opposite way than UNC hoped. The result is a bleak statistical portrait, both in the won-loss columns and everywhere else.
Notre Dame at UNC
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill