After a dismal outing against Cal last Saturday, UNC Football will need its defense to step up against a high-powered Louisville offense led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Though the Cardinals’ offense knows how to move the chains, the unit turns the ball over more than almost every other team in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
In 2016, Louisville turned the ball over 32 times – nearly two-and-a-half times per game, finishing the season with surprisingly low rankings in total turnovers (124 out of 128) and turnover margin (107 out of 128). Against Purdue in last weekend's season opener, the offense picked up right where it left off, combining for more than 500 yards of total offense while coughing up the ball three times.
If the Tar Heels hope to pull off the upset in front of their home crowd, they will likely need to force Jackson and company to turn the ball over. “We just know that they like to hang the ball out,” junior linebacker Cole Holcomb said. “We’re going to get it.” Holcomb talked about the greater emphasis UNC’s new defensive coaches have placed on forcing turnovers. “We have these keys to victory,” he said. “Every week, it’s to get two or more takeaways.”
Donnie Miles, who finished with eight tackles and an interception, elaborated on the need to force turnovers. “Part of our goal every week is to get our hands on the ball – to force turnovers to get the offense back on a short field,” the senior safety said. “We’re going to try and take advantage of [turnovers] however we can.”
Linebacker Andre Smith, who finished with a team-high 10 tackles, made note of Jackson’s propensity to turn the ball over. He talked about Louisville’s two “big-time” turnovers in the red zone against Purdue. “When he runs, he’s definitely loose with the ball,” Smith said of Jackson. “We always emphasize punching the ball, raking it out, interceptions, strip sacks – everything like that.”
Smith, who also had an interception against Cal, will look for Jackson to test the UNC pass defense. “We’re going to have a lot of eyes on him,” he said. “[Watching] where he’s looking and seeing where I relate to the receivers at the time [will help me] break on the ball.”
Senior cornerback M.J. Stewart, who was named to the Pro Football Focus Preseason All-America first team, took a softer approach, stating the importance of remaining level-headed while attempting to force turnovers. “You have to be on your 'Ps and Qs' at all times,” he said. “I think you just play within your means – play within the scheme.”
He said the defense needs to enter the game with a smart mentality by not assuming anything. “You just have to approach them like every other team because it’s funny with football: a team that could be, per se, turnover prone could come out and have the best game of their life versus you,” the Arlington, Virginia native said.
“Our coaches always tell us, ‘We don’t need any superheroes out here. We don’t need any spectacular plays,'” Stewart said. “If everybody just makes the ordinary play that they make every day in practice, plays will come to you.”