CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — An offseason spent pushing the defense to force turnovers paid off in No. 23 North Carolina's season-opening victory.
Now the Tar Heels must prove those defensive improvements were something more than just a one-time burst against a lower-division opponent, starting Saturday night against San Diego State.
The Tar Heels (1-0) forced six turnovers against Liberty in the 56-29 victory, three coming during the third-quarter flurry that sparked them to four touchdowns in a 4-minute span. The six turnovers were the most forced by UNC since 2009 and it was tied for the second-best total nationally.
The Tar Heels managed 20 takeaways all last season — tied for the second-worst total in the Atlantic Coast Conference — and recovered just seven fumbles.
"I really don't remember us creating that many balls on the ground in the entire season last year," coach Larry Fedora said Monday, "what we accomplished in that one game — actually in that one half, basically."
UNC also allowed just 53 yards in the third quarter and forced three straight three-and-outs before the rain of turnovers began.
Linebacker Jeff Schoettmer — who dropped back into coverage to snatch down an interception and return it for a touchdown in the flurry — said associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning made the team do up-downs or other punishments if they didn't come up with takeaways all through preseason camp.
"He preached that every day," Schoettmer said. "We stressed that all camp and it showed."
Of the 29 points allowed, Liberty scored a defensive touchdown, got a safety on a bad snap over the punter's head and had one touchdown drive start at the UNC 15 after a turnover.
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