Irish defense stifles Tar Heels with three-and-outs, turnovers
Daniel O'Boyle | Monday, October 9, 2017
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Ian Book made his first start.
Josh Adams earned a first down.
Ian Book threw his first pass as a starter.
Tyler Newsome punted.
Ian Book escaped pressure and made his first run as a starter.
Tyler Newsome punted again.
Ian Book rolled out and threw downfield for the first time as a starter.
Adams was stuffed on third down.
Book was stuffed on fourth.
Ian Book led a 15-play drive, ending with a touchdown pass to Cam Smith.
Josh Adams did what Josh Adams does, breaking free for a 73-yard score.
Tony Jones Jr. made an appearance, and his first three rushes of the day.
Tyler Newsome punted once more.
And then — 23 minutes into the game, on its sixth possession — North Carolina finally earned its first first down of the contest.
The Irish (5-1) had held the Tar Heels (1-5, 0-3 ACC) to five consecutive three-and-outs to start the game. They recorded a total of eight on the day, plus a safety by senior defensive end Jay Hayes and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and an interception by sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara that also came without a Tar Heels first down on the drive. Okwara said the entire defense is always determined to get off the field on third downs.
“Whenever we get to third down, we’re in there to go get a stop,” Okwara said. “That’s something we practice every day, third-down situations and getting off the ball, getting to the quarterback, reading the tackle and trying to make the right play.”
But the Irish three-and-outs were not simply the product of successful third downs. The Tar Heels consistently faced difficult third-down situations, with an average third-down distance of 6.1 yards and four plays of third-and-nine or more.
On first down in particular, the Irish defense set the tone, letting up only 2.4 yards on average over the course of the game, and holding the Tar Heels to an average of a 2.2 yard loss per first-down play on the opening five drives of the game. That first-down performance starts with the defensive line, which Jay Hayes said feeds off its own success due to the competitive attitudes of every player in the unit.
“It’s so competitive in the D-line room,” Hayes said. “Guys want to get tackles for losses, they want to get sacks, they want to get forced fumbles and they want to get fumble recoveries. The guys are so competitive. When someone gets something, everyone’s happy, but everyone wants to get something too. That’s what keeps the D-line rolling. It was competitive before, but not like this. They count pressures, they count wins and losses during the game, everyone counts everything.”
Okwara echoed that sentiment, saying defensive line coach Mike Elston ensures the unit builds on every successful play it makes.
“Coach Elston tries to get us fired up,” Okwara said. “We feed off each other and we try to execute and make plays for each other.”
Last year, the Irish forced a total of 32 three-and-outs, while no team forced more than 68. The nation’s leaders in the statistic were none other than national champions Clemson, with national runners-up Alabama in second place. The eight three-and-outs forced by the Irish against the Tar Heels bring them to 23 for the season, an average of a little under four per game. Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill said the defense has had great success this year, but was determined to truly make a statement in North Carolina.
“Coach Elko challenged us this week,” Tranquill said. “For the most part we’ve been able to get by and still beat our opponents down, but there’s always been a drive here or there where they accumulated too many yards on us, so the coaches challenged us this week. For the most part I think we still did great but I think there are still things we can look at as far as really punishing opponents goes, but we definitely took a step forward to that today and had a great performance.”
With the exception of a 16-play field goal drive that ended in the fourth quarter with the Irish already leading by 19 points, no Tar Heels drive lasted more than two minutes, as the Irish defense neither bent nor broke, ending drives quickly by stops and turnovers. Hayes said he was determined to make opponents fear the Irish defense, and that starts with stopping offenses as soon as possible.
“We take pride in getting three-and-outs,” Hayes said. “That’s our whole goal getting in every time we go out there. They’re going to go three-and-out. We don’t want them to try to drive down the field in us. We take pride in that.
“We don’t want a team to think they can run on us; we don’t want a team to drive down the field; we don’t want a team to think they can push us around. We want to instill fear, fear of us as a front four, as a front seven, as an entire defense with all the guys in rotation. We want to instill fear in those five O-linemen that are facing us.”