Mack’s mad men: UNC’s sack-happy defense quiets coach’s concerns

CHAPEL HILL — As North Carolina football coach Mack Brown considered the season-opening statement delivered by his team’s defense, and compared it to the preseason concerns he regularly voiced about generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks, he arrived at an admission.

“I think I was just trying to make them mad,” Brown said, “because they’ve got some talent there.”

Whatever the explanation or motivation, the Tar Heels turned in a swarming and suffocating effort to put the squeeze on Syracuse last weekend during the first game of the season.

With Charlotte set to visit this week for Saturday’s non-conference matchup, No. 12 North Carolina is coming off a dominant defensive performance that produced seven sacks and 11 tackles for lost yardage, while allowing just two field goals, the fewest points the Tar Heels have given up against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent since November 2009.

Defensive end Tomari Fox and linebacker Chazz Surratt collected two sacks apiece of Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito, helping North Carolina pile up its best sack total in a game in seven years.

Brown said Tar Heels coaches chose Fox as the team’s defensive player of the game, a credit to the disruptiveness and activity level with which he operated. Fox said what North Carolina’s defense put on display last weekend at empty Kenan Stadium “sets the bar” for what’s possible this season.

Syracuse’s 202 total yards marked the lowest output North Carolina has allowed against an ACC team in 11 years. It was the first time in any game since September 2012 that the Tar Heels defense hasn’t given up a touchdown.

“I think our ceiling is absolutely though the roof,” Fox said. “You can’t put a cap on us. We have a lot of talented guys who are out there. We have a lot of talented guys waiting to get in there.”

Defensive lineman Raymond Vohasek and linebackers Tomon Fox and Jeremiah Gemmel also got into the act for North Carolina by supplying sacks of DeVito, who was surrounded by a patchwork supporting cast in some spots.

Syracuse had top running backs Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard opt out of playing this season, and started a converted fullback in Chris Elmore on the offensive line at left guard.

The Tar Heels pounced, harassing DeVito into 13-for-31 passing, hounding him with pressure and chasing him out of the pocket. The Syracuse quarterback’s scrambles — he ran 16 times for 30 yards — ended up accounting for his team’s three rushing first downs on the day.

The afternoon became the antithesis of the apparent anxiety Brown expressed during the preseason, when the North Carolina coach wondered aloud on a number of occasions if defensive coordinator Jay Bateman would have to gamble and dial up blitzes in order for the Tar Heels to create a sufficient pass rush.

“I think the biggest difference in our defense is that we’re two deep and we have fresh legs, and that really helps us more than last year,” Brown said. “Tomon Fox got really tired last year at times. But there’s a lot of guys out there that can rush the passer now, and I thought they did a very good job of that.”

Tomari Fox, right, congratulates older brother Tomon Fox after the North Carolina defense delivered a quarterback sack in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game.

Brown said North Carolina was able to rotate through a group of 26 players on defense during the Syracuse game, and “that was an objective we wanted to complete.”

In the first quarter, Tomon Fox smothered DeVito on a fourth-and-1 option keeper from the North Carolina 22-yard line. That turnover on downs gave way to sacks by Tomari Fox and Vohasek on the next two series, with Vohasek showcasing brute force in steamrolling Syracuse center Carlos Vettorello on a bull rush through the crowded interior of the line — and the Tar Heels were unleashed from there.

“I don’t expect anything less from him,” Tomari Fox said, admiring Vohasek’s sack. “He brings that kind of violence and intensity to him every day and every play.”

North Carolina’s defense formed a source of consistency to rely on last weekend, while quarterback Sam Howell and the Tar Heels’ potentially prolific offense went from sputtering in the beginning to clicking by the end. North Carolina led Syracuse 7-6 late in the third quarter, before breaking away to a 31-6 victory on the strength of four straight scores.

Miscues on offense set up Syracuse with four possessions that started in Tar Heels’ territory, three of them inside the 37-yard line. But the Orange never managed a touchdown, with North Carolina digging in again and again on defense.

“I think our defense is really good,” Surratt said. “I think a lot of people talked about our offense going into the year, so coming into the game we kind of took a chip on our shoulder going in knowing the kind of guys we’ve got playing on the defensive side of the ball.

“I’m just really glad we played how we’re supposed to play. I think we can be really good on defense. We’ve got a lot of really good guys up front and on the back end. I think the sky’s the limit for our defense.”