CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina — It's hard for North Carolina coach Larry Fedora to know exactly what kind of defense he has.
On one hand, the Tar Heels were among the nation's best at forcing turnovers through their first two games. On the other, they missed too many tackles in their last outing.
Saturday's trip to East Carolina could say a lot about whether the Tar Heels (2-0) are set for a season-long repeat of the same defensive problems from a year ago, which included an ugly performance in a blowout loss to the Pirates.
"As soon as coach says ECU, in our minds, we think about how we got embarrassed," safety Tim Scott said Monday. "We just didn't play as a team. That was the worst we've ever played since I've been here, so I feel like we have a lot to prove."
The Tar Heels know the challenge that awaits against the Pirates (2-1), who are coming off an upset at then-No. 17 Virginia Tech and played tough in a loss at South Carolina a week earlier.
A year ago, the Pirates dominated the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill by racking up 603 total yards — the second most by any opponent at UNC's Kenan Stadium — in a 55-31 win.
To avoid a repeat, the Tar Heels will have to keep forcing turnovers like they did in the first two games. With nine takeaways, the Tar Heels ranked tied for second nationally heading into their bye week and have returned an interception for a touchdown in each game.
But against the Aztecs, Fedora said his team missed 34 tackles after missing fewer than 10 against Liberty. The Tar Heels needed Scott's end-zone interception in the final minute to seal a 31-27 win in that one.
"You can't have that many missed tackles and say you're a good tackling team," he said. "Now we come back and we'll see where we are, because the tackles now are going to be all in open space. ... You're going to have to make good solid tackles in the open field and if you don't, they're going to turn into explosive plays."
Senior defensive tackle Ethan Farmer said tackling was a big part of the team's fundamentals-heavy to-do list during the bye week. The tackling must improve for Saturday and beyond, with the trip to Greenville starting a stretch of three road games in four weeks — including trips to No. 22 Clemson and No. 9 Notre Dame.
"That sticks in our mind today," Farmer said. "Giving up 55 points as a defense, that's not us. We've been working on that all summer, every practice, even our 2-minute drill. I think we'll be ready for Saturday."
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
All content copyright ©2014 Daily Journal, a division of Home News Enterprises unless otherwise noted.