Heels suddenly stumbling

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 24, 2011

By Aaron Beard
Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL — Everett Withers didn’t want his players to get too excited after probably their best performance in an easy win at East Carolina earlier this month. North Carolina’s interim coach is following a similar approach now that the Tar Heels are suddenly stumbling.
The Tar Heels (5-3, 1-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) have lost two straight after their fast start. In the first, they fell behind big in the first half against Miami before rallying and falling short in the 30-24 home loss. Last week, they gave up 35 third-quarter points and committed six turnovers in a 59-38 loss at Clemson.
Withers is trying to keep his players in the middle of the road heading into this weekend’s home game against Wake Forest.
“I believe you have a mindset and philosophy and a temperament that your kids need to see and your team needs to be focused and doing what they do throughout the season,” he said Monday. “This is a long journey. There are going to be some valleys and peaks.
“If you’re not going to stay on an even keel, your players are going to see that, your coaches are going to see that. And that’s the way we do business.”
The Tar Heels have some reason to be a bit down after the past two performances followed by the loss of starting senior safety Matt Merletti. The school said he would miss the rest of the season after spraining two ligaments in his left knee in the loss to the Tigers. He’ll need surgery in the coming weeks to assess the severity of the injury.
Merletti had redshirted in 2009 after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament during preseason practice. He started every game this year, which means converted cornerback Tre Boston is expected to start against the Demon Deacons.
“He does everything right,” junior safety Gene Robinson said of Merletti. “I call him Mr. Perfect. We just have to improve. We have to prepare more. Someone has to step in, whoever they may be, and just get the job done.”
Merletti’s absence will shake up a secondary that’s part of one of the league’s worst pass defenses. The Tar Heels rank next to last by giving up 263 yards per game, while they’ve given up a league-worst 16 touchdown passes — including five to Clemson’s Tajh Boyd.
The turnovers, three on interceptions thrown by Bryn Renner, haven’t helped, either.
“We’ve got to obviously play better down the middle of the field and on the outside,” Withers said. “We’re in good shape a lot of times and then we just don’t finish. We’ve just got to finish at the ball. … I think the biggest thing is again, I’ll go back to turnovers. I don’t care what kind of defense you’ve got, if you keep putting them back out there on the field, some teams are going to make some plays.”
The Tar Heels must correct the problems as they enter a tough final month of the season. After facing the Demon Deacons (5-2, 4-1), they travel to North Carolina State — they haven’t beaten their rival since 2006 — followed by a Thursday night game at Virginia Tech before closing at home against Duke.
“I think we’ve just got to keep pushing,” Renner said. “Things could be a lot worse.”