UNC solid in the red zone
By Aaron Beard
CHAPEL HILL ó North Carolina is finishing drives with touchdowns and frustrating opponents by forcing them to settle for field goals after pushing inside the 20-yard line. That production in the red zone is a big reason why the Tar Heels are off to a strong start under interim coach Everett Withers.
ěWe work on it at practice every week. We worked on it in camp a bunch,î Withers said Monday. ěWhatever you emphasize, hopefully youíre getting some return out of it.î
Heading into Saturdayís game against Louisville, the Tar Heels (4-1) have scored on 15 of 18 possessions that have reached the 20. One of the empty trips came as the clock expired on the win against Rutgers, while two others came near the goal line in the fourth quarter with the Tar Heels up big on Virginia and East Carolina. While that 83 percent conversion rate ranks just seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference, all 15 scores have been touchdowns, making UNC the only ACC program to reach the end zone on all its red-zone scoring drives.
Meanwhile, the defense is tied with Miami for second in the league by turning away opponents on red-zone drives nearly 28 percent of the time. The Tar Heels have allowed 13 scores, though theyíve forced opponents to settle for six field goals.
ěI think that shows the true character of the defense, like the touchdown is on the line,î safety Matt Merletti said.
ěHonestly, itís just a matter of doing your job. Thereís nothing really special to it, to best honest with you. Itís each guy doing their job and it kind of comes together as a whole when each guy is taking care of their business.î
That red-zone defense played a key role in the Tar Heelsí 35-20 win against the Pirates over the weekend. Playing in front of a rowdy and record home crowd, East Carolina marched to UNCís 18-yard line on the gameís first drive before Tre Boston stripped receiver Danny Webster on a catch and recovered the fumble. Two drives later, the Pirates marched to the UNC 19 only to see the Tar Heels force and recover a second fumble.
East Carolina also was forced to settle for field goals on a pair of other drives inside the 20, the second coming when the Pirates had a chance to make it a two-possession game late in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, North Carolina had no such troubles inside the 20. Bryn Renner threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jheranie Boyd on the Tar Heelsí first scoring drive. Then redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard ran for a 10-yard touchdown to make it 21-0 as part of his third straight 100-yard performance, while receiver Dwight Jones hauled in a one-handed touchdown on a short pass from Renner to push the lead back up to 35-13 midway through the fourth.
Because of that efficiency, the Tar Heels have tried only two field goals all season ó which is good news considering starting kicker Casey Barth has missed the past two games with a thigh injury and is still iffy for this week.
ěOnce we start a possession there, weíre like, ëWeíve got to get this in,íî Renner said. ěNo offense to our kickers, but we really donít want them to kick the field goals. We want them to kick extra points.î