North Carolina coach Mack Brown knows his team started the season with too many penalties and turnovers.
Now the 12th-ranked Tar Heels and the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference teams that played last week get the chance to correct mistakes that surfaced – some from the typical opening-game jitters, others potentially tied back to altered offseason training and interrupted routines amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Coaches say it to nauseum, but you improve the most between the first game and the second game,” said Brown, whose Tar Heels won 31-6 against Syracuse despite their miscues. “I think it’s because you’ve got live work now. And you’ve also got things that you can correct.”
Entering the week, only 42 of 130 Bowl Subdivision teams have taken the field, while Boston College, North Carolina State, Virginia and Virginia Tech have yet to play in the ACC. From that short list, Georgia Tech, UNC, Syracuse and Florida State all committed at least seven penalties to rank among the highest in the country among teams that have played only once.
Additionally, the Tar Heels and Seminoles are among six teams that committed at least three turnovers in their lone outing, while Georgia Tech, Louisville and Duke lost two.
There were also issues with special teams, from missed field goals for multiple teams to punting problems for the Cardinals in an otherwise easy win.
Yet ACC Network analyst Eric Mac Lain, an offensive lineman on Clemson’s national runner-up team in 2015, said he expected that play would be sloppier beyond the usual Week 1 mistakes. That’s because teams lost valuable reps when parts or all of spring practices were canceled by the pandemic, which also impacted summer workouts and preseason practices as teams altered routines to follow safety protocols.
“You have to re-evaluate,” Mac Lain said. “And guys, a lot of them (are) learning to play. There’s a lot of young guys, a lot of first-year guys, some people who are now adding a new area of playing time because of opt-outs. … I think that at the end of the day, it’s a combination of the rust and just figuring it out and having to kind of build as we go.”
To Mac Lain’s point, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said Tuesday his team was down six cornerbacks in a loss to top-ranked Clemson due to a mix of injuries and contact tracing, contributing to communication breakdowns in the secondary. And at Syracuse, quarterback Tommy DeVito pointed to the “big hit” from lost spring practices under a new offensive coordinator.
“There's only so much you can do through a Zoom like we are now meeting-wise when you can’t be on the field with the team, just installing new plays and physically going through it to fix things that needed to be fixed," DeVito said. "We had to make all those corrections pretty quickly through our fall camp.”
On the other side, Brown’s Tar Heels committed nine penalties for 91 yards along with their three turnovers. But their mistakes occurred in a lopsided victory, with UNC tallying an FBS-best seven sacks while surrendering its lowest point and yardage totals to an ACC opponent since 2009.
“At the same time, we’ve got a lot of things to fix,” Brown said, adding: "You can coach your guys so much harder after a win than you can after a loss, because usually a loss, they’re down and they’re struggling and you’ve got to pick them back up.”
The same could be true for Georgia Tech and Louisville after wins.
The Yellow Jackets committed 10 penalties for 80 yards and had two field goals blocked at Florida State. The Cardinals saw new punter Logan Lupo fumble his first snap and have a kick blocked, setting up short touchdowns for Western Kentucky.
Compare that to the Seminoles, whose two lost fumbles, one interception and seven penalties came in a loss. New FSU coach Mike Norvell has an off week to adjust before visiting Miami on Sept. 26.
“Truly this week is all about us – about continuing to clean up the details, the fundamentals of working to execute at a higher level., so we actually got a lot of the 1-vs-1s, 2-vs-2s team work," Norvell said.
“It was continuing to emphasize the same things, focus on our improvement and making sure that we clean up some of the details that cost us here this past Saturday – and truly trying to learn from the experience.”
AP Sports Writers Gary B. Graves in Louisville, Kentucky; John Kekis in Syracuse, New York; and Paul Newberry in Atlanta; contributed to this report.
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