The long off-season generated a lot of excitement about a stellar recruiting class and a solid number of returnees. However, if the first game is any indication, there is reason for concern that the North Carolina Tar Heel football team could be in for another long year.
“It's a game about making plays. You have to make plays,” Dexter Reid said following the loss.
That summed up the defensive effort Saturday night. After finishing at the bottom of nearly every defensive statistic last season, the North Carolina defense seems to have many of the same problems this season. They just didn’t make the plays.
On the perimeter, the UNC defense lacks the speed to pursue to the edge and get the stop. On numerous occasions, FSU quarterback Chris Rix simply used quick outs to receivers who had five to ten yards to run before encountering a UNC defender. Even in their running game, the Seminoles burned the edges of the UNC defense.
“The majority of those runs, when the game was in question in the first half and the beginning of the second half, were on the perimeter,” head coach John Bunting said.
Defensive line coach Brad Lawing emphasized throughout the pre-season that defensive end was a concern, and that proved true Saturday night. The defensive ends were unsuccessful at bringing any pressure on FSU. The sacks against Rix came from blitzes by Jeff Longhany and Clay Roberson.
If there was a bright spot on the defensive line, the interior line did appear stouter in this game, but the interior was also not tested to the extent of the perimeter.
There were some positive developments. Mahlon Carey acquitted himself well in his new position at strong safety, recording five tackles. The North Carolina secondary in general gave up few passes down field. However, the front seven of the UNC defense has a long way to go.
It is a long season and this was no average opponent in Florida State. As the season progresses, the defense has the opportunity to get quicker. Among the underclassmen, particularly at linebacker, there is some speed.
“We have to find a way to get our younger players playing for us before the season is over,” Bunting said.
From the results Saturday night, sooner might be better than later.
After years of being the goat of the UNC offense, the much-maligned offensive line appeared significantly better. There were few pre-snap penalties, and no muffed center-quarterback exchanges, problems early on a year ago. Not only did they do few things wrong, they did a lot of things right.
After pre-season reports of how the Florida State defense was sacking the ‘Noles’ quarterbacks in bunches, the offensive line gave up only one sack all evening. That lone FSU sack came late in the game against reserve quarterback C.J. Stephens.
The unmistakable contours of a pocket were evident on several passing plays, and Durant overall benefited from better protection. Against a team such as FSU, that bodes well for the rest of the season.
Though the rushing yards were nothing to write home about, after falling behind 21-0 by the second quarter, the Tar Heels had to focus more on an aerial assault.
Offensive lineman Jeb Terry liked the effort of the running backs. “I thought they played well and played hard,” he said. “We had to divert away from the running game towards the second half because of the score, but they played well and played hard. I was impressed.”
True freshman Ronnie McGill added a physical presence to the backfield. “I'm really happy with Ronnie McGill,” Bunting said. “He's going to be a good player. He's strong, he sees things. He's going to be a really fine player for us.”
Bunting declined to say if McGill is now the No. 1 back, saying that decision will await review of the game tape. Even after one game, it is clear that McGill brings a different element to the offense. On several occasions McGill showed the ability to get positive yards when it appeared he was stopped.
UNC quarterback Darian Durant had a good game, but not one of his finest performances. In his defense, the receivers dropped no fewer than four passes, many of which would have resulted in first downs.
Jarwarski Pollock had a good night, catching a career high eight passes for 71 yards. He looks to be Durant’s “go-to” receiver this season. “Jaws understands the game, and he always seems to get open and make plays after he catches the ball,” Durant said. “He's a tremendous receiver, and we seem to be on the same page a lot.”
In his debut, true freshman Mike Mason also had a good outing, catching five balls, but he also made a few rookie errors. On one play he caught a third-down pass that would have been good for a first down, but backpedaled trying to make a play and lost the first down yardage. Derrele Mitchell had a spectacular catch on a fourth down play, and the receiver corps showed some flashes of talent in general. They have not accounted for the loss of Sam Aiken and Chesley Borders at this point, but their potential to do so is evident.
The major offensive concern highlighted Saturday night was their inability to finish drives. Though able to move the ball well at times against a powerful FSU defense, they sputtered in the red-zone.
“We just couldn't get in the end zone when we needed to,” Terry said. “Maybe one of those drives, if we'd gotten into the end zone, it would have curtailed a little of the momentum and maybe swung in our favor.”
Durant agreed. “When we got into the red zone, it came down to execution on our part, and we didn't execute.”
Dan Orner, who had been the hero in some former contests, missed field goals of 55 and 37 yards. This area of special teams was expected to be a strength, but missed the mark Saturday night.
“I'm sure he's disappointed, just as we are,” Bunting said, “He's a guy who kicked well last year and helped us win at least two ball games, with the Duke kick and the big kicks at Syracuse. I expect that he'll bounce right back. He works hard. He works as hard as anybody on our team.”
On a brighter note, the punting game was better than expected, except for allowing a long late return, which came after David Woolridge nailed a 61-yard punt.
Commenting on the play, Bunting said, “David Wooldridge boomed one, and it got returned. We didn't do a very good job by our gunners. It was our third group of gunners, and I'm going to take a look at that, too. If those guys can't give better effort and execute better technique, they won't be on the field. I'll put somebody else out there. That was a great kick, and we should have had the guy trapped, but we didn't do it.”
The Tar Heels face the Syracuse Orangemen next Saturday in Kenan Stadium at 1:30 PM. UNC defeated Syracuse last season in the Carrier Dome, 30-22.
Syracuse features a couple of running backs, Damien Rhodes and Walter Reyes, that will pose a tough challenge, but the jury is out on the team’s defense.