Will penalties come back to bite UNC down the road?


A few numbers have stood out for North Carolina so far this season.

Mitch Trubisky is on pace to finish the regular season with more than 3,500 passing yards. The team as a whole is averaging 299.7 yards per game through the air. Ryan Switzer is on his way to becoming the program’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2011. Safety Donnie Miles and linebacker Andre Smith are second and third in the ACC, respectively, in tackles this season.

One stat, however, is likely giving the coaching staff fits. Through seven games, this year’s UNC squad is on pace to be the most penalized team of the Larry Fedora era.

It’s a dramatic change from 2015. The Tar Heels jumped from six wins in 2014 to 11 in 2015 for a variety of reasons. One is because they had one of the most efficient offenses in the country, averaging an FBS-high 7.28 yards per play. Another was substantial improvement on the defensive side of the ball as they gave up 24.5 points per game compared to 39.0 PPG the year before.

But the other key factor was the decline in penalties.

Two seasons ago, UNC averaged 7.6 penalties for 63.2 yards per game. Those figures dropped to 5.7 and 46.4 a year later.

This year, though, UNC is back up to 8.4 penalties per game for an average of 66.6 yards. Those numbers — the highest of Fedora’s tenure — go much more in line with what’s been seen since the head coach arrived in Chapel Hill in 2012.

During each of Fedora’s first two years at Carolina, the Heels were the most penalized team in the ACC. In his third season — the 2014 campaign — they were the second-most penalized team.

They sit at No. 10 in the league in penalty yards per game this year, but that’s still six spots down from 2015. In its season-opening loss to Georgia, UNC accumulated 101 penalty yards. Its lowest total for a game this year was 41 against Pittsburgh, but that number is still considerably higher than the average this fall for Georgia Tech (32.1), which is the least penalized team in the conference.

Moving forward, the Tar Heels have two options: Cut down on the flags, or continue to outplay opponents enough that the penalties don’t affect the outcome.

All four of the team’s remaining ACC opponents have been guilty of fewer penalties per game to this point. The margin for error in college football can be razor-thin, and if UNC plans on repeating as champion of the Coastal Division, it can’t afford to slip up between now and the end of the regular season.