“Basically, it was a ‘must win’ thing for us,” defensive end Quinton Coples (nine tackles, three sacks, four tackles-for-loss) said. “We’ve been in a lot of close games, and we came close, but overall we knew we had to get this win.”
For much of the first three quarters the Scarlet Knights came at the Tar Heels often in either a “Wildcat” formation or in a “Pistol” formation (with the quarterback lined up a few steps away form center, but shorter than the traditional shotgun and with a back behind him). It wasn’t necessarily unexpected, however, particularly the “Wildcat.”
“They scored their winning touchdown (against FIU) with (the ‘Wildcat’),” head coach Butch Davis said. “You kind of had to think with two weeks to get prepared, with two weeks to kind of look at what we’ve been doing in the first two ballgames - to look at how we played the option against Georgia Tech and look at how we played some of the spread option that LSU used - we assumed they were going to have some schemes and it was going to take a while for those things to manifest themselves and for us to kind of get a grip on it.”
No one, bear in mind, is going to confuse the Rutgers offense with the 1999 St. Louis Rams. The leading rusher, Joe Martinek, was a game-time decision with a gimpy ankle and only got five carries on the day. If it wasn’t for wide receiver/Wildcat quarterback Mohamed Sanu (1-of-1 passing for 7 yards, 15 rushes for 41 yards, and 9 receptions for 74 yards), Rutgers’s offensive showing would have been even more anemic.
According to Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, the enhanced use of Sanu was in part because starting quarterback Tom Savage got banged up in the first half. “He got hit in the ribs and he was hurting,” Schiano said.
The Tar Heels ratcheted up the pressure on the Rutgers quarterbacks in the second half, finishing with five sacks and ten tackles-for-loss, limiting Rutgers to just 98 second half yards.
When a field goal as the result of Bruce Carter’s blocked punt put North Carolina up 17-13 with 9:34 left in game, the Scarlet Knights had two more possessions to try and cross the goal line. Did the staff have confidence they could hold Rutgers out of the endzone with that much time left, even with as much as they had been on the field?
“The one thing that started to become a little more evident in the second half, we were starting to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback,” Davis said. “We had some sacks, we had some tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and we started to hit the quarterback and make him throw under duress. It gave you a little bit of confidence.”
Even with that confidence, Rutgers was able to drive the ball from its 22-yard line down to the North Carolina 19-yard line with 2:42 left in the game. Tar Heel fans have seen this movie before, playing a tight game on the road only to lose in the final moments. Instead of the usual script, safety Matt Merletti stepped in and made the play of his career, giving the UNC offense the back the ball with an interception.
“Matt just made a great play,” Davis said. “They had tried to pick on the secondary throughout the entire day, I think they obviously recognized that some of these kids are very young, they don’t have a lot of game experience, and they tried to isolate and pick on certain ones throughout the course of the ballgame. It is just so rewarding to have kids go out there and play their hearts out and make a play like that and I was so very proud of Matt’s play.”
After the UNC offense failed to make a first down, the defense again came up big. Four plays and a Donte Paige-Moss sack later, the Tar Heels ran out the clock and sealed the win.
“I think towards the end our defense got a little gassed, but we were playing with guys that are usually backups, so we are missing that depth, but at the same time, guys really went out there and fought,” said linebacker Bruce Carter, who had two game-changing plays of his own, with an interception return and a blocked punt. “That’s big, that’s a real builder for the defensive confidence, especially the secondary.”
If confidence was what the North Carolina defense needed to get out of this game, mission accomplished.
“When we come into a situation like this, you can be down and go out and not have a good game, or you can suck it up and become a man and go out and play football,” Coples said.
“That’s what we did.”