North Carolina’s regular season, and bowl hopes, have come down to two games. If the Tar Heels win both, they will go bowling. And if they don’t, the 2019 season is in the books. They will host Mercer for Senior Day this Saturday, before heading to West Raleigh the following week for a likely make-or-break showdown with NC State. Sam Howell and the North Carolina offense are putting up impressive numbers almost weekly. The receiving corps has become one of the better units in the ACC, and Howell is finding them. The question is whether North Carolina’s struggling, injury-riddled defense can come through. The offense has given the Tar Heels a chance to win every game this season. They will put points on the board against Mercer and NC State; now it’s up to North Carolina’s defense to come through.
Injuries Are Plaguing The Secondary
The North Carolina secondary started the year on very solid footing. Led by Myles Wolfolk and Patrice Rene, the unit had every reason to expect a breakout year. Wolfolk intercepted a pass to seal the season-opening victory against South Carolina, and we saw the Tar Heels break out the Turnover Belt for the first time. We have seen the belt a few times since then, but not enough. The next week, against Miami, Rene tore his ACL; a season-ending injury. Ever since, the injury bug has evolved into a plague. Players have missed time on both sides of the ball, but the secondary has been decimated.
Wolfolk was injured against Appalachian State, and did not return until the Virginia game earlier this month. In that game, he sustained an upper body injury, and is now out for the remainder of the season. Without Wolfolk in the lineup, the secondary’s level of play has changed dramatically. During the first period Wolfolk missed time, true freshmen Storm Duck and Cam’Ron Kelly were able to step in and perform well. However, Kelly tore his ACL against Clemson when his knee made contact with a teammates’ helmet. The bad luck has been surreal when it comes to injuries.
The entire defense struggled mightily since Wolfolk’s second injury. During the second half of the Virginia game, Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins picked the Tar Heels apart. For three quarters this past Thursday, Pitt moved the ball at will against North Carolina. The Panthers went after defensive backs D.J. Ford and DeAndre Hollins, and at times Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett made it look all too easy.
Tar Heels Looked Fatigued On Defense
North Carolina has struggled with tackling throughout the season. The defense seemed to have improved its tackling at times, only to come back to the same problem. Linebacker Chazz Surratt has taken over as the de facto leader of the Tar Heels’ defense after converting from quarterback during the off-season. Surratt had 13 tackles during the loss to Virginia, with many coming after first contact. He had only five against Pitt, and he missed several open-field tackles. He was called for a late hit penalty, costing North Carolina 15 yards. Surratt has been the defensive savior at times this season, most notably when he picked off a Duke pass at the goal line to preserve a Tar Heel victory. North Carolina needs Surratt’s athleticism and leadership more than ever over the next two weeks.
The Tar Heels have not been able to get any pressure on opposing quarterbacks over the last two weeks. The North Carolina defense has actually taken a step back after a very solid outing against Duke. Perkins and Pickett both had better games than they should have had against the Tar Heels. They were given far too much time to throw, and they used it to make plays. When Tar Heel defenders did make it into the backfield, tackles were missed and opposing backs slipped away. During the Pitt game, there were several times two or even three Tar Heels made contact with Pitt ball carriers without bringing them down. That sort of tackling may work against Mercer Saturday, but it certainly won’t be enough in Raleigh.
Too Much Time On The Field
The defense’s body language did not look good at Pitt on Thursday. Players looked fatigued by the end of the third quarter, after being on the field most of the night. The Tar Heels finally buckled down in the fourth quarter and gave Howell and the offense a chance to come back, which it did. North Carolina’s defense has to bring new energy over the next two weeks. The Tar Heels have to get off the field and turn it over to Howell.
Now It’s Up To North Carolina’s Defense
Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman and his unit will be under the spotlight during the next two weeks. Saturday’s match-up against Mercer should be an opportunity for the Tar Heels to have a “get right” game. The Bears are an FCS program, currently at 5-7 on the season. There will be chances for North Carolina defenders to improve their tackling and force turnovers. However, the Tar Heels can’t make the mistake of overlooking Mercer with the crucial game against the Wolfpack on the horizon.
North Carolina has lost two straight close games, and the defense’s confidence is sagging. The Tar Heels can’t do anything about the injuries that have added up. However, they can right the ship with better play and a renewed intensity on the defensive side of the ball. The team faces two must-win games, with a bowl bid hanging in the balance. The offense has the firepower and the confidence to make it happen. Now it’s up to North Carolina’s defense.