Avoiding turnovers proving key in No. 12 Tar Heels' roll
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina's offense is rolling to big yardage totals and Atlantic Coast Conference-record scoring outputs.
And there's one telling stat in the No. 12 Tar Heels' rise to their highest ranking in 17 years: three straight games with a ''zero'' in the turnover column.
The Tar Heels are one of two teams nationally with an active streak of three turnover-free games heading into this weekend's trip to Virginia Tech with a shot to clinch a trip to the ACC title game.
''Just take care of the football, that's all we've got to do,'' UNC coach Larry Fedora said Monday. ''If we keep doing that, we'll be really happy at the end of the year, I promise you.''
The numbers certainly back Fedora, whose program is gaining momentum with each week. The Tar Heels can clinch a date with top-ranked Clemson in the ACC championship game with a win in either of their final two games or a loss by Pittsburgh in either of its last two games.
UNC (9-1, 6-0 ACC) hasn't lost since its opener and already has more wins than it has in any season since Mack Brown left for Texas at the end of the 1997 season. The Tar Heels are 6-0 in the ACC for the first time since last winning the league title in 1980. And they have their highest ranking since opening the 1998 season at No. 12.
UNC ranks tied for seventh nationally in turnover margin, with three of their nine coming in the season-opening loss to South Carolina. They've eliminated them completely in the past three games, the program's first such stretch without a turnover since October 1996 during a top-10 season under Brown, according to STATS.
It had happened only once time previously for Fedora in his four seasons as a head coach, in 2010 at Southern Mississippi. It had never happened for him during his stints at offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma State.
Air Force is the only other team nationally with an active streak of three turnover-free games, according to STATS.
It's no coincidence that the Tar Heels have turned in their most impressive performances of the season during that stretch.
They won at Pitt to hand the Panthers their only league loss, returned home to beat rival Duke 66-31 and then scored the first 45 points in a 59-21 win against Miami last weekend - with the last two games setting an ACC scoring record for consecutive league games. Meanwhile, they've forced seven turnovers during those games to get extra shots for a humming offense.
Quarterback Marquise Williams certainly understands the importance to keep the run going. He threw three interceptions - two in the end zone - in the 17-13 loss to the Gamecocks, but has thrown four in nine games since.
''It's just knowing don't force anything - if it's not there, throw it away or take off,'' Williams said. ''The running backs have been protecting the football, both hands on the ball. And receivers, they've been competitive with the ball. If it comes their way, they catch it.
''That's the thing, our motto is just take care of the football: 100 percent ball security.''
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP's college football site at http://www.collegefootball.ap.org .