By AARON BEARD
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina keeps finding itself in close games and outplaying its opponents in the fourth quarter. The problem is the Tar Heels also keep putting themselves in first-half holes that have them playing catch-up.
They can’t afford to do it for a third straight week, not with top-ranked Clemson visiting to start UNC’s Atlantic Coast Conference schedule.
The Tar Heels (2-2) jumped on Miami for a 17-3 lead in their Week 2 win, but they’ve trailed after the first quarter in their other three games. And in the past two, they’ve seen shaky second-quarter performances turn into big deficits that resulted in failed-comeback losses to Wake Forest and Appalachian State.
“We’ve come out and been pretty even after we make adjustments at halftime,” coach Mack Brown said Monday. “And then the fourth quarter, we’ve scored 45 points to nine (for opponents). But we seem to always be in a hole and we’re digging ourselves out.”
Indeed, the Tar Heels aren’t helping themselves in the first half of late. The first game against South Carolina isn’t a good example because of how conservative they were being with true freshman quarterback Sam Howell, but the high point against Miami was followed by an immediate second-quarter fade that helped the Hurricanes get back in it.
And things haven’t really picked up before halftime since.
The Tar Heels fell behind 21-0 by halftime at Wake Forest with nine first-half possessions resulting in eight punts (six after three-and-outs) and a fumble. Then last week, the Tar Heels scored a touchdown on their first offensive play only to give up 20 straight points to the Mountaineers and trail 27-10 shortly before halftime.
The biggest culprit there was two turnovers by Howell, as well as a defense that couldn’t get off the field.
The Tar Heels have been outscored 41-13 in second quarters, a number Brown called “atrocious.”
“Our theme is ‘Be the one,’ — well, be the one to make that stop, be the one to step up, be the one to excite them in the second quarter,” Brown said. “But we’ve got so much stuff on us right now it’s hard to pull out the second quarter and say, ‘OK, where does this fit in priorities’ because we’ve got a big list of stuff we’ve got to get fixed.”
Maybe, but it sure seems urgent considering the reigning national champion Tigers (4-0, 2-0 ACC) have had no such trouble hitting full speed. Clemson has outscored its first four opponents 45-0 in first quarters and 100-12 in the opening half.
“For us, we talk a lot about getting off to a fast start,” said Tony Elliott, Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach. “And I think the faster we start, the quicker we get into rhythm. It helps the psyche on the sidelines with the offense and defense. And I would imagine it puts some pressure on the opposing team as well. That’s a focus of ours.”
Another slow start would almost certainly put the Tar Heels in an insurmountable hole against a team blowing out every opponent, even with UNC’s knack for fourth-quarter comebacks.
“The problem is we don’t want to be in that situation every week,” UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “We want to take care of business in the first half and put ourselves in a position where maybe we can dictate for four quarters or at least be in control of our own destiny for four quarters, and not have to be the cardiac kids in the fourth quarter every single weekend.”
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina contributed to this report.
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