CHAPEL HILL Someone is going to have to explain how getting Giovani Bernard back from injury made the North Carolina defense so much better.
If the unspoken explanation for the Tar Heels narrow losses at Wake Forest and Louisville was the absence of the explosive Bernard, whats the explanation for the sudden effectiveness of the North Carolina defense, which faltered in both of those games?
The Tar Heels recorded seven sacks Saturday six in the second half, five in the third quarter, one forcing a fumble in the shadow of the goal line as they pitched a second-half shutout, turning a four-point halftime lead into a 27-6 win over East Carolina.
That same East Carolina offense generated 24 points last week at Southern Mississippi, the team most recently coached by the man who now coaches North Carolina and a team that still runs the same defensive schemes the Tar Heels run now.
The difference from one week to the next, from the Pirates perspective: Theyre definitely athletes and thats something we knew from film, that theyre athletic, East Carolina left tackle Adhem Elsawi said. They were trying to work more speed and use their athleticism.
Which is, in so many words, exactly what North Carolina fans have been expecting from this defense this season. Speed. Athleticism. The kind of Red Bull-fueled mayhem Larry Fedora promised on both sides of the ball when he was hired.
The Tar Heels blew the game open in a four-minute, eight-play stretch of the third quarter: 62-yard touchdown, sack and fumble, Bernard touchdown run. East Carolina had no answer for the Tar Heels pass rush in the second half, before, during or after that sequence.
East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden is a strong lad, in the words of Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill, but he was knocked around mercilessly by North Carolinas pass rush. Kevin Reddick got to him on the critical fumble, tearing the ball out of Cardens hands, and Kareem Martin fell on the ball, taking the game with it.
We had to prove ourselves, Martin said. We knew we were a good team defensively. And I think we had to show the nation that we can perform we are one of the best defenses in the country. So we had to go out and play both halves.
When they blitzed, the Tar Heels got to Carden quickly. When they sat back, Carden waited too long for receivers to come open and the Tar Heels got to him with even a token three-man rush. Sometimes blitzes, sometimes coverage sacks, sometimes breakdowns in protection there were an awful lot of sometimes.
I cant take sacks like this, Carden said. There were ones where the offensive line did the job they were supposed to do, I just didnt get rid of the ball.
On the Pirates final offensive play, Carden held the ball so long that walk-on safety Jeff Schoettmer, a freshman who isnt even listed on the Tar Heels depth chart, came cruising around the left end and flattened Carden from behind.
The seven sacks were the most for North Carolina since 2000. That was as unexpected as Schoettmers back-to-back tackles on East Carolinas final two plays.
It wasnt just one guy, Fedora said. There were a lot of guys that got their first sacks of the year. And you know, when you start getting that, its kind of like a feeding frenzy for sharks.
Bernards presence helped. Having this kind of defensive presence helped even more.