Top ACC football teams looking to reduce the miscues

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 17, 2020

By Aaron Beard

AP Sports Writer

North Carolina coach Mack Brown knows his team started the season with too many penalties and turnovers.

Now the 12th-ranked Tar Heels and the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference teams that played last week get the chance to correct mistakes that surfaced — some from the typical opening-game jitters, others potentially tied back to altered offseason training and interrupted routines amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Coaches say it to nauseum, but you improve the most between the first game and the second game,” said Brown, whose Tar Heels won 31-6 against Syracuse despite their miscues. “I think it’s because you’ve got live work now. And you’ve also got things that you can correct.”

Entering the week, only 42 of 130 Bowl Subdivision teams have taken the field, while Boston College, North Carolina State, Virginia and Virginia Tech have yet to play in the ACC. From that short list, Georgia Tech, UNC, Syracuse and Florida State all committed at least seven penalties to rank among the highest in the country among teams that have played only once.

Additionally, the Tar Heels and Seminoles are among six teams that committed at least three turnovers in their lone outing, while Georgia Tech, Louisville and Duke lost two.

There were also issues with special teams, from missed field goals for multiple teams to punting problems for the Cardinals in an otherwise easy win.

Yet ACC Network analyst Eric Mac Lain, an offensive lineman on Clemson’s national runner-up team in 2015, said he expected that play would be sloppier beyond the usual Week 1 mistakes. That’s because teams lost valuable reps when parts or all of spring practices were canceled by the pandemic, which also impacted summer workouts and preseason practices as teams altered routines to follow safety protocols.

“You have to re-evaluate,” Mac Lain said. “And guys, a lot of them (are) learning to play. There’s a lot of young guys, a lot of first-year guys, some people who are now adding a new area of playing time because of opt-outs. … I think that at the end of the day, it’s a combination of the rust and just figuring it out and having to kind of build as we go.”

To Mac Lain’s point, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said Tuesday his team was down six cornerbacks in a loss to top-ranked Clemson due to a mix of injuries and contact tracing, contributing to communication breakdowns in the secondary.

The Tar Heels committed nine penalties for 91 yards along with their three turnovers. But their mistakes occurred in a lopsided victory, with UNC tallying an FBS-best seven sacks while surrendering its lowest point and yardage totals to an ACC opponent since 2009.

“At the same time, we’ve got a lot of things to fix,” Brown said, adding: “You can coach your guys so much harder after a win than you can after a loss, because usually a loss, they’re down and they’re struggling and you’ve got to pick them back up.”