There were some conflicting opinions among the North Carolina players and coaches on the subject. Interim head coach Everett Withers seemed to downplay, even outright dismiss, the impact of “want to,” on the outcome of today’s game.
“I don’t think it had to anything to do with intensity, emotions,” Withers said. “It’s was about X’s and O’s and not blocking them and not tackling them.
The strongest dissenter from that opinion, by far, came from running back Giovani Bernard, and it came in the strongest terms.
“A lot of guys looked at their record, and thought, ‘Okay, their record is not as good as ours, they’re not going to be as good as us,’ but coming into a rivalry game like this the record doesn’t really matter,” Bernard said. “I think it is about heart, and the score showed they had more heart than us and they played harder than we did.”
Those are strong words, but strong words are likely the best when, on paper, the better team lost. Then again, in the last five years, all UNC losses, you could arguably make the case that the Tar Heels were, on paper, the better team in all five of those losses.
Braden Hanson, who relieved a hobbled Bryn Renner in the second half, seemed to agree with Bernard when asked if the Tar Heels matched the intensity of the Wolfpack.
“Obviously not,” Hanson said. “We didn’t come out with the right mindset. We weren’t able to move the ball, and it just really put us behind the eight ball.”
Offensive lineman Jon Cooper tended to side with his head coach.
“I don’t think it was a lack of effort, nor intensity,” Cooper said. “(It’s) just that they have a pretty good scheme and they have good players to carry them out.”
At the same time, Cooper found it difficult to explain why the Tar Heels suffered their first shutout in this series in 50 years.
“We don’t think we should be shut out by anybody, especially when you play your hardest and play your best,” Cooper said. “(I) couldn’t have fathomed that they were going to shut us out, but they did.”
To that, Bernard agreed: “I felt like we had so many playmakers on our offense that no team in the country should really shut us down.”
Withers offered the simplest explanation of all: “They got off the blocks and tackled better than we blocked them.”
The loss would be easier to explain in terms of X’s and O’s if the Wolfpack unleashed a brand new scheme, or came up with a particularly well-conceived game plan, something that caught the Tar Heels off guard. No player or coach, however, seemed to suggest that the N.C. State team showed them anything different than they had already seem before, and had prepared to face.
“They were blitzing a lot early on, but we should have been able to pick that up -- we just needed to execute better,” Hanson said.
Cooper said, “I believe we were fully prepared for all of it, but like I said, they had the players to carry it out, and they did a good job of it. They had linebackers making plays, filling gaps; I guess there were some errors and mistakes on our part too.”
Bernard backed up Cooper’s assessment, but with a different twist.
“It really wasn’t that they were doing anything different, it was just a matter of our mindsets going into the game,” Bernard said. “I didn’t feel right going into the game. I felt guys were just joking around, not taking this game seriously. I knew guys were just, not really focused in”
In a rivalry game, heart matters; it may even be the only thing that matters. And a lack of it, in a passionate rivalry matchup, will lead to a loss every time – or in UNC’s case, five straight times.