CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina — North Carolina's defense is still trying to solve the same defensive problems, from poor tackling to missed assignments that lead to big plays.
Barring an unlikely turnaround, the Tar Heels will have to play through and overcome that unit's struggles in their final three games as they try to return to bowl eligibility.
Associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said the defense is making incremental improvements but those small steps haven't stood out on gamedays for UNC (4-5, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference), which is in a bye week before hosting Pittsburgh.
"We're trying to make the best of it, make the most of every day," Koenning said. "And that's what we've been focusing on."
The Tar Heels entered the season hoping their 4-2-5 defense would be improved from last year's struggles.
But North Carolina ranks last in the league in total defense, scoring defense, passing defense and rushing defense. The Tar Heels are allowing 510.3 yards per game to rank 121st out of 125 teams nationally in the bowl subdivision and 41.9 points to rank 122nd nationally.
Those numbers are about 90 yards and 14 points more than the next-worst teams in the league statistics.
When asked what he needs to see to maintain faith that the defense is going in the right direction, head coach Larry Fedora said, "Improvement. Just improvement each week. We know we've got to play better.
Of course, the Tar Heels' strength — their no-huddle offense — hasn't helped, either. The fast style of play keeps putting that struggling unit right back on the field, where it has played 71 more plays — basically, a full game — more than any other league team.
UNC has given up at least 50 points three times, including a school-record 70 in a loss at East Carolina. Last weekend, the Tar Heels watched Duke Johnson run for 177 yards with one of his two rushing scores going for 90 yards in a 47-20 road loss.
That explains why freshman linebacker Cayson Collins was quick to cite the struggles against the run as a top priority, especially with league-leading rusher James Conner (149.1 yards per game) next up. Then comes No. 22 Duke and rival North Carolina State, with UNC needing two wins to make a bowl for the second straight season.
"I feel like that's something we've struggled with pretty much all season," Collins said of run defense. "We get hats to the ball, we get people there but I feel like wrapping up and making sure we get the ball carrier on the ground is something that we have to improve on."
And Koenning didn't stop there when rattling off a long list of what he's focused on during the bye week.
The players have to do a better job fitting the gaps to stop the run. They have shed blocks more quickly to get to the ball carrier and then tackle better, a common refrain all year.
He also mentioned stopping screen passes and reverses, then caught himself.
"Everything," he said. "So I guess I can sit here and mention a bunch of things we've got to work on — probably be here until midnight."
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