North Carolina's defense is showing some signs of growth, just in time for the Tar Heels' late bowl push.
The Tar Heels (4-5, 3-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) have cut down on their mistakes, forced more turnovers and taken down quarterbacks more often. Those are all welcome signs after the struggles from the first half of the schedule.
That improved defensive play has been a factor in North Carolina's three-game win streak heading into Saturday's game at Pittsburgh, which has restored some optimism here after a 1-5 start. It even has associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning - who had been brutally honest with reporters all year about his unit's struggles - seeing some progress.
"Well, yeah, I'm not as discouraged as I was early," Koenning said. "I was obviously discouraged, yeah. I would say I was extremely disenchanted by the way we had been playing and the way I thought we needed to play. At least we've been acting like we're coached and doing things we're supposed to do. Hopefully we'll keep doing that."
The low point came in a 55-31 home loss to East Carolina on Sept. 28 in which the Pirates racked up 603 total yards. That was the second of four straight losses that dropped to UNC to 1-5, the last coming when the Tar Heels gave up the winning touchdown with 16 seconds left in a 27-23 loss to then-unbeaten Miami on Oct. 17.
But after allowing an average 30.7 points in the first six games, UNC hasn't allowed more than 19 points in wins against Boston College, North Carolina State and Virginia - though those teams are a combined 2-15 in league play.
Head coach Larry Fedora said improvements came with a realization by the players after grabbing four interceptions against the Hurricanes.
"If we just do our job, just do my job, and count on the guy next to me, that he's going to do his job, the defense is set up where good things are going to happen," Fedora said of that mentality. "And then I only have to make the plays that come my way."
The Tar Heels have racked up eight sacks in the past three games. And that pressure is helping the secondary, with the Tar Heels allowing one passing touchdown with eight interceptions in the past four games.
"I think their defense is very athletic, especially in the secondary," Pitt receiver Devin Street said. "Those guys get after it. They can run, especially their corners, and they're definitely strong up front. They're on a win streak now and (they'll) give it all they have against us."
Koenning said the coaches have simplified the amount of pregame preparations to keep the players focused on their fundamentals. As a result, Fedora and Koenning said the number of missed assignments has fallen from earlier this season.
And that has the defense playing with some confidence again.
"Normally in the past, we played not to mess up," senior cornerback Jabari Price said. "Now we're playing to make plays. And it's really starting to show."