CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) – An offseason spent pushing the defense to force turnovers paid off in North Carolina’s season-opening victory.
The 21st-ranked Tar Heels, however, were plenty sloppy themselves.
North Carolina tries to iron out its offensive issues Saturday night against San Diego State and hope its defensive improvements were something more than just a one-time burst against a lower-division opponent.
The Tar Heels forced six turnovers against Liberty in last Saturday’s 56-29 victory, three coming during the third-quarter flurry that sparked them to four touchdowns in a 4-minute span. The six turnovers were the most forced by UNC since 2009.
The Tar Heels managed 20 takeaways all last season – tied for the second-worst total in the ACC – and recovered just seven fumbles.
”I really don’t remember us creating that many balls on the ground in the entire season last year,” coach Larry Fedora said Monday, ”what we accomplished in that one game – actually in that one half, basically.”
UNC also allowed just 53 yards in the third quarter and forced three straight three-and-outs before the rain of turnovers began.
Linebacker Jeff Schoettmer – who dropped back into coverage to snatch down an interception and return it for a touchdown in the flurry – said associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning made the team do up-downs or other punishments if they didn’t come up with takeaways all through preseason camp.
”He preached that every day,” Schoettmer said. ”We stressed that all camp and it showed.”
The picture wasn’t always pretty on the other side of the ball. With Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky seeing time under center, the two quarterbacks combined for three interceptions and North Carolina fumbled four times, losing one.
“We had too many interceptions, I can tell you that,” Fedora told the school’s official website. “We had some wasted opportunities with some picks that shouldn’t happen. Those things can’t happen if we’re going to be a good football team, but I was glad to get both of them to play.”
Williams will start Saturday and is expected to get most of the snaps.
He’ll face a San Diego State team that has won nine of 11 dating to last September after rolling past Northern Arizona 38-7 in its opener last Saturday. The Aztecs ran for 194 yards while Quinn Kaehler threw for 205 with a touchdown and an interception in a performance he called subpar.
Coach Rocky Long wasn’t thrilled with his defense, which dropped a pair of interceptions and missed too many tackles for his liking.
“I think our players are all mature enough and want to be good enough that they realize we should win,” Long told the school’s official website. “And we went out and played good enough to win convincingly. But we know there’s better teams on the horizon, too.”
North Carolina should be a more complete team than it was in its opener. The Tar Heels suspended four players for the Liberty game after a Yahoo Sports report surfaced regarding an alleged hazing altercation that left a redshirt freshman walk-on receiver with a possible concussion. The school has said it is investigating what it described as an incident involving team members, though it hasn’t confirmed it was a hazing incident.
On this week’s depth chart, cornerbacks Des Lawrence and Brian Walker are back in the starting lineup while Donnie Miles and M.J. Stewart are in reserve roles in the secondary.
”They didn’t like it, but they understood that was the way it was going to be,” Fedora said. ”So they accepted it and just like with any discipline, you face the discipline and you move on from it and hopefully you don’t ever make that mistake again.”