From the opening gun, Miami used quarterback Jacory Harris’s arm and a trio of fleet-footed receivers to catch off-balance a North Carolina defense that had been bracing for the run.
“I would have to say squarely, myself, I was too busy focused on the run, instead of the passing game,” cornerback Jabari Price said. “I should have respected the pass game from start to finish, but I was too busy focused on statistics and what he’s done in the past. I ended up paying the price for it.”
If you were focusing solely on the stat sheet, a casual glance gave the impression that the Tar Heels were holding down the ACC’s best rusher. At halftime, Lamar Miller had only 12 yards rushing on eight carries. However, Harris and company had rolled up 233 yards and three TDs through the air.
“We were definitely focused on stopping the run all week,” safety Matt Merletti said.
That type of comment echoed throughout the fifth floor of the Kenan Football Center.
“We kind of thought they were going to run the ball, run the ball on us; we worked all week to stop the run, because they have a real good running back and they are a good running team,” corner Charles Brown added.
Too often North Carolina used three and four-man rushes with Price and Brown playing off coverage. Harris used pinpoint passing on out patterns that the Tar Heels could not answer, and the ‘Canes marched 71 yards on 13 plays in 5:55 seconds to go up 7-0 – but that was just the first body blow.
“They (Miami) did an excellent job of throwing the ball in the first half," interim head coach Everett Withers said. "I give them credit for throwing the football. Our emphasis was on stopping the run and they made some plays in the passing game.”
A turnover and one play later, the ‘Canes scored on a fake reverse, Harris connecting with a wide-open Tommy Streeter to go up 14-0 – a start that the Tar Heels ultimately found impossible to overcome.
“The turnover at the beginning of the game, the way it started, it took the wind out of whole team,” Merletti said. “(On) the fake reverse pass, everyone’s kind of looking for that reverse, it’s just one of those plays that’s tough to defend.”
That 14-point lead was fueled not by the running of Lamar Miller. Were the Tar Heels surprised at Harris’s accuracy and effectiveness early?
“I don’t think that was surprising, we kind of knew that coming into the game,“ Merletti said. “He’s kind of struggled with his decision-making sometimes in the past, but he did a very good job today, you’ve got to give him credit.”
Though there was plenty of time left to go in the game, that 14-point early deficit definitely affected the psyche of the team.
“We gave up 14 points real early and that set us in a hole; we played catch-up the whole game, but we didn’t really get back (in it) until the fourth quarter,” Brown said. “Anytime you do something like that, it’s really tough when you get down 14-to-nothing before you get out of the tunnel basically.
“I think it affected the team tremendously.”
The Tar Heels can take little solace in the fact that the ACC’s leading rusher would finish the day with just 21 yards on 16 carries, or that their own running back, Gio Bernard, would notch yet another 100-yard game, his fifth-consecutive 100-yard game.
Miami just came out with a better game plan to start the game, and opponents have figured out that it is far easier to exploit North Carolina’s secondary than to challenge North Carolina’s run defense.
Now North Carolina must somehow counter that strategy going forward. But how?
“Just make a play,” linebacker Kevin Reddick said. “The main thing is just somebody make a play. We’re in the right spots. Just good communication and make the play. That’s it.”