North Carolina offense punching back

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora watched his offense slog through the first half in games early this season, and finally had enough.

After a third-straight slow start against East Carolina, he decided to go to some tape for inspiration.

Fedora gathered his team and showed them old Mike Tyson boxing footage to give them a better idea of what he wanted. The message was striking: if you jump on your opponent early, your chances for a knockout punch grow exponentially.

North Carolina listened. In its past two games, the team has scored 73 first-half points en route to blowout wins. The Tar Heels were relentless in their 48-34 win against Virginia Tech last week, leaving many observers to wonder how a shaky Miami defense is going to stop the rolling Heels on Saturday.

"We’ve seen when we do start off slow it’s harder to get over the hump," offensive guard Jonathan Cooper said in a telephone interview this week. "The coaches have been emphasizing start off fast. When they showed the video of the Mike Tyson fight, we all saw he started fast, wore his opponent down and knocked him down quickly. So the mentality is to start off fast and jump on people. When we're hitting on all cylinders, we could be a really good team."

In its first three games against FBS competition this year, North Carolina went 1-2, scoring 31 total points in the first half. The includes 14 points total in the first quarter of those games.

But in its wins against Idaho and Virginia Tech, North Carolina had a total of 42 first-quarter points and ended up scoring a combined 114. That is its highest point total in consecutive games since 1914, when the Heels scored 118 against Virginia Medical (65) and Wake Forest (53).

What has changed for this team on the field? Cooper says there is much more buy-in from the players.

"People are completely understanding their assignments, and people are starting to buy in to give 100 percent effort to pick up the tempo," Cooper said. "Once you do that, you can really see the difference."

It also helps to have a healthy Giovani Bernard, who ran for a career-high 262 yards against Virginia Tech last week. North Carolina is one of only 10 FBS schools and one of just three ACC schools (joining Florida State and Clemson) averaging at least 250 yards passing and 200 rushing.

For his part, Fedora says he knew his players would start to feel more confident once they got comfortable with his hurry-up system. He has been relentless, but his players have grown to respect and understand why. Fedora has seen a change in attitude as well, saying his offensive linemen in particular now want to go as fast as possible because they see tangible results. Their up-tempo offense has continually worn down the opposition in the third and fourth quarters.

"I will tell you this: We're far from being where we're going to be. If that makes sense," Fedora said. "We're not -- I know we've had some success in the last couple of weeks -- but we're not even close to our potential. You can go back in this last game, and wow. You look at it and go, golly, that's not very good. So I know that we can get a lot better and will be a lot better in the future. The best thing about it is our team has improved each week."

That might be a scary proposition for the rest of the ACC.