How UNC football’s defensive changes helped the Tar Heels to a big win over Campbell

Robert Willett/

North Carolina could have been a broken football team after leaving Atlanta a week ago.

The UNC defense had been shredded in a 46-42 loss to Georgia Tech. The offense couldn’t make plays at the end to prevent it. Wide receiver Tez Walker fumbled after a jarring tackle late in the ACC game, was down on the field for several frightening moments and then helped off the field and taken to a hospital.

UNC coach Mack Brown, his eyes filled with anger and disappointment in the moments after a loss to Virginia, appeared spent and almost dispirited after the loss to Tech.

But everything began to change last Sunday, beginning a week that culminated in UNC’s 59-7 victory Saturday over Campbell at Kenan Stadium.

First, Walker returned to Chapel Hill, still sore but otherwise OK physically, which in turn provided an emotional lift for his teammates and coaches, seeing him back.

“It was a little scary but part of the game,” Walker said Saturday. “He got a clean shot on me, but I knew I’d be all right as soon as I opened my eyes. I knew I was fine.”

Later that day came team meetings at the Kenan Center, including one in which defensive coordinator Gene Chizik and each of the defensive assistant coaches addressed the defensive players.

“Coach ‘Chiz” had a great speech to the defense,” senior linebacker Cedric Gray said Saturday. “Chiz got after us and made us understand the different things and the reasons why we lost that (Tech) game.

“It was very uplifting, him telling us we were going to get back on track and figure it out. The defensive coaches said what they had to say. I think that gave us some confidence and really settled us down as a defense, kind of preparing for the week. It was a very motivating speech.”

The UNC defense was burned at times by Virginia in losing 31-27 to the Cavaliers, but scorched in the fourth quarter by the Yellow Jackets. Tech used for 246 yards in scoring 22 points in the quarter, leaving the UNC defense all but shellshocked.

How to correct? Simplify, Gray said.

In addition to getting the defensive calls in quicker against Campbell, which also tried to hurt UNC’s defense with tempo, Gray said the eels relied on three or four defensive sets.

“We handled tempo very well today. Very well,” Gray said. “They were trying to do it, as well, but we were able to stop it. If you stop a certain play, stop a certain strategy, it will tend to go away.They’ll stop trying to do it and I think that’s kind of what happened today.

“Early in the game, they were trying to tempo, but it was something we put a big emphasis on and I think it got across to us this week. We were lining up fast,the call was getting in quick. I think that was part of the problem of why tempo was working before, that we weren’t lined up and we were confused on what our job was. Today we weren’t confused.”

Campbell quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams broke off a 39-yard run in the first half that set up the Camels’ only score -— and briefly a 7-7 tie — but the Heels handled the rest well enough. Campbell, which had four turnovers, finished the game with 102 yards rushing and 287 total after getting 109 yards in the first quarter.

“They got their confidence back,” Brown said of his defense.

Then again, it was Campbell. It was an FCS team coming into Kenan Stadium late in the season and the final result more or less expected. It won’t be the same next week with Duke the opponent in UNC’s final home game of the season, or against Clemson and N.C. State.

“Teams are still going to try (tempo),” Gray said. “Just because we stopped it versus Campbell doesn’t mean they’ll stop trying it. We’ve got to be prepared for it for the rest of the season.”

But this day, the Heels could enjoy themselves after a big win in which so many played and contributed. Walker, called a game-time decision by Brown because of a sore ankle, was in the lineup had two TD catches. Drake Maye threw four four touchdowns, then watched backup quarterback Conner Harrell break off a 61-yard TD run and throw for another to Chris Culliver.

Omarion Hampton had his fourth consecutive 100-yard game and became a 1,000-yard rusher this season. The sophomore scored twice, the first on a 54-yard run after having a 75-yard run nullified by a penalty.

“The next three weeks we’ve got three big games coming up,” tight end Bryson Nesbit said. “I think this was a good game to get back into it. We come into every week thinking to restart, and having a good offensive and defensive week like this can really trend us upwards the next couple of weeks.”