Carolina’s special teams’ play was outstanding, the defense was slightly better; and perhaps more impressive, nobody in blue and white ever gave up amid the throng of hostile Badger fans. Wisconsin teetered on blowing out UNC on several occasions, only to have the Tar Heels come up with a big interception, runback or offensive drive – as was the case in the game’s final seconds.
When the clock showed all zeros, true freshman Jesse Holley had just hauled in the first of what is sure to be many touchdown passes. The fact that C.J. Stephens was able to find him among the Badgers’ prevent defense demonstrated that the Tar Heels had not lost focus even in certain defeat.
“There are things that we can build on from this game,” UNC head coach John Bunting said. “I’m looking forward to getting back together with my team. I’m going to take and show them all the good things that we did, and work with them on some of the things we still need to get better on.”
Talk about a smack in the mouth, Michael Waddell’s 97-yard kickoff return to start the game opened the eyes of everyone in attendance, many of whom had only heard of the Tar Heels’ many shortcomings. Any ideas the Badgers had of a decisive romp were put aside early.
“It just takes the wind right out of you,” Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said. “You’ve got your team ready, you’ve worked hard all week, you’re focused, you come out of the locker room ready to go and the guy goes however far he went untouched.”
But it wasn’t just Waddell who came up big on special teams, though he did rack up 176 yards on four kickoff returns and one punt return. Both on Waddell’s runs and Mike Mason’s late game return for a would-be touchdown that was called back, neither returner faced much physical resistance and was able to burn by the Wisconsin coverage with their blazing speed.
“I wasn’t really shocked when I scored, because we work so hard on special teams in practice and everybody did their assignments,” Mason said. “Coaches tell us to do things the way they set them up in practice, but it just got called back.”
“On special teams it really showed how athletic some of our young players are,” Bunting added. “I’m going to keep playing those kids. They played with a lot of enthusiasm and effort. They’ll grow from that. I’m certain they had their eyes opened by it a little bit [by the speed of the college game].”
And though giving up 38 points is not a enviable accomplishment, it was a reduction from the Tar Heels’ 2003 average. The defense appeared a little quicker and didn’t miss nearly as many tackles as it had in its two previous contests.
The Carolina offense usually feels the pressure to score as many points as its defense can allow. However, that was not necessarily the case against Wisconsin.
“Our defense gave us numerous opportunities to capitalize on the turnovers that they got, and the special teams gave us good field position,” Darian Durant said. “Just to come out and not have enough points to win this game is just unacceptable.”
Losing is frustrating, and finding positives in loss can sometimes be a futile proposition. From the season’s onset, Bunting has said that this year would consist of 12 isolated seasons – one for each game played.
But for the first time since his early tenure, fans and others have questioned Bunting about his blueprint for the Tar Heels’ future success.
He promised improvement – however slight – with each game. That promise was fulfilled on Saturday.
“We battled on defense as well as we’ve battled this year,” Bunting said. “I’m encouraged by the play of our special teams – we’re getting better. We’ve got to take it to another level now. We’ve got to have this kind of effort and maintain it for 60 minutes.”