CHAPEL HILL – An offseason spent pushing the defense to force turnovers paid off in No. 23 North Carolina’s season-opening victory.
Now the Tar Heels must prove those defensive improvements were something more than just a one-time burst against a lower-division opponent, starting Saturday night against San Diego State.
The Tar Heels (1-0) forced six turnovers against Liberty in the 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 and it was tied for the second-best total nationally.
The Tar Heels managed 20 takeaways all last season – tied for the second-worst total in the Atlantic Coast Conference – 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.”
Of the 29 points allowed, Liberty scored a defensive touchdown, got a safety on a bad snap over the punter’s head and had one touchdown drive start at the UNC 15 after a turnover.
Koenning was been brutally honest with reporters all last year about his unit’s struggles, saying at one point he was “extremely disenchanted” by the defensive play. To listen to him Monday, the Liberty game was little more than a good start.
“We made some plays and it was awesome to make some plays,” Koenning said. “There was a few times where if we hadn’t been hustling, we wouldn’t have stripped the ball because there were some plays that were downfield. So our guys were running to the ball, we were doing some of the things it takes.”
The defense was shorthanded last week with four players, including two starters, suspended for what Fedora described only as a violation of team policy.
That came a day after a Yahoo Sports report of 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.”