The frustrations of the staff and team must be mounting with the losses so far though this 2003 season, as the Wisconsin game enters the books as a 38-27 loss. It is much more difficult to judge improvement than the immediate feedback of a “W” on the record.
The North Carolina offense should shoulder a good part of the blame for the defensive performance on Saturday. On the first offensive series, a three-and-out and a woeful punt gave the Badger offense possession inside UNC territory at the 46-yard line. On the next UNC possession, a penalty and a fumble gave Wisconsin the ball at the UNC six-yard line. On the first UNC offensive possession of the second half, the Tar Heels again went three-and-out, losing 12 yards in the process. The Badgers began their next drive at the UNC 35-yard line after a penalty on the punt.
In each case, the Badgers scored a touchdown, accounting for 21 of their 38 points. Bunting noted the number of “short fields” the Badgers were able to take advantage of during the game. North Carolina cannot expect to win any game where the offense leaves the defense in the position they were in so often on Saturday. But there were other problems as well on the defensive side of the ball.
Wisconsin singled out starting cornerback Derrick Johnson and exploited what they obviously saw as the weak spot in the Tar Heel pass defense. Too often Johnson got caught trying to do two things at once; defend his assignment and help against the run. Johnson could have been just having an “off day,” but Wisconsin seemed to have him in mind from the outset of the contest.
During the spring and fall, several Tar Heel players vied for the starting spots at corner, including Michael Waddell, Chris Hawkins, Cedric Holt, and Lionell Green. Future opponents are likely to follow Wisconsin’s strategy when game-planning the Tar Heels.
On a positive note, the play of sophomore strong safety Mahlon Carey was outstanding. Carey pulled in two interceptions, including one that saved what looked to be another Badger touchdown, and also led the team in tackles. Carey and senior Dexter Reid form what might be the best safety tandem in the ACC.
The Tar Heel defensive ends combined for only seven tackles and one tackle for loss. Though three games, North Carolina has only one sack from its defensive ends. In contrast, the play of the defensive tackles has improved noticeably, with Chase Page recording six tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack. True freshman Isaiah “Puff” Thomas saw his most significant action and recorded three tackles at nose tackle. Thomas also forced a fumble, but it was recovered by Wisconsin. Though his play was limited, he demonstrated that he may be ready to be more of a force at defensive tackle.
True freshmen Larry Edwards and Fred Sparkman saw their first snaps at linebacker, though their playing time was limited to about one series each. Neither did anything remarkable while at linebacker, but did get their feet wet at their future positions.
Edwards has demonstrated excellent tackling skills on special teams, and should see more action at weak side linebacker as the season progresses. Melik Brown, a starting true freshman at strong side linebacker, recorded his first tackles as a Tar Heel and seems to be finding more of a comfort level on the field.
Defensive end Isaac Mooring believed the Heels improved, “Guys seemed to play a whole lot faster this game. We were more aggressive and didn’t miss as many tackles.”
The results of that improvement are hard to find, though it would be unfair to say that there was not some improvement on defense. Unfortunately, even with steady improvement, the Tar Heel defense has a very long way to go just to be mediocre.
On the Badger touchdown drive that began late in the third quarter, they faced only one third down while covering 80 yards. The Badgers picked up hunks of yards running on first down during that drive, leaving them several second-and-short opportunities. At that point in the game, the defense had been on the field far too much all day, but that drive was the dagger in the heart of the Tar Heels on Saturday.
Though the prospect of playing the true frosh more is a tantalizing prospect, there isn’t a quick fix for the 2003 defense.
Darian Durant had a frustrating day at quarterback against a well-prepared Wisconsin defense. “Those guys are very disciplined, and it was hard for us to throw some things at them,” Durant said. “Playing a disciplined team like that is kind of hard. We could have executed better but we didn’t. Those guys played well.”
Jarwarski Pollock again was Durant’s favorite receiver, hauling in five passes for 67 yards. Brandon Russell, Adarius Bowman, and Derrele Mitchell each had two catches, but the Wisconsin defense appeared to have the North Carolina passing attack well-defended on most occasions and Durant wasn’t sharp early in the game. Late in the game, C.J. Stephens tossed a touchdown pass to Jesse Holley, his first as a Tar Heel.
The offensive line once again performed well. Jacque Lewis took advantage of two huge holes created by the line for long runs. Lewis, once past the line of scrimmage, may be UNC’s shiftiest runner. He made several would-be tacklers miss en route to runs of 56 and 17 yards and also showed good toughness. However, those two runs and a 25-yard run by Durant accounted for 98 of UNC’s 110 yards rushing total. While explosive runs are exciting to see, the Tar Heels need more of the five-to-seven yard run variety on a consistent basis.
The inability of the Tar Heel running game to generate that type of offense has to concern the staff. The defense is not going to take a quantum leap forward this year, and the offense has to do a much better job at ball control. The offense will compound the deficiencies of the defense until the Heels can run the ball effectively and consistently.
Durant was sacked three times, and on one occasion there appeared to be a complete breakdown in protection. Durant was possibly guilty of hanging on to the ball on the other sacks, an understandable error as the Heels were trying to get back into the game.
The Tar Heel offense felt the absence of Bobby Blizzard for the second straight game. Not only does the senior provide another offensive weapon, but he also is an integral part of blocking schemes. Without the talented tight end, the Tar Heel offense simply isn’t as effective.
It was tempting to change my usual format and lead with the special teams this week. This phase of the game has proven to be the most consistent and most improved part of the North Carolina football team, and was outstanding on Saturday.
Michael Waddell’s opening touchdown return of a kickoff and the Mike Mason touchdown run called back by a meaningless block in the back showcase the improvement, but it runs much deeper than that. Coverage on kickoffs and returns has been good overall throughout the early season, and were excellent on Saturday. The Badgers longest punt return all day went for six yards, and kickoff coverage was also excellent.
“It was terrific, but it’s not just one man, though,” Bunting said of the special teams play. “There’s a whole bunch of guys out there working …We’ve got great speed and athleticism. Most of those are young players out there on special teams giving tremendous effort.”
There is a glaring hole in special team play, and that is punting. For a team as suspect on defense as the Tar Heels are, field position is crucial. After the Tar Heels went three-and-out on their first possession, John Lafferty’s punt covered only 28 yards. Though the Badger return was limited to just six yards, the Tar Heels netted only 22 yards on the punt.
The Tar Heels had opened the game with a remarkable run and special team effort on Waddell’s 97-yard touchdown return, only to turn the momentum over to the Badgers who scored easily following the anemic punt. Though the poor punt can’t be said to be the sole reason for the ensuing Badger score, it clearly was a significant contributing factor.
If this were an isolated situation, it would just be a sad footnote in the game. However, the need for North Carolina to get more out of the punting game has been a constant and needs to be addressed.
The Tar Heels return to the Triangle, but face a buoyant N.C. State team fresh off a demolition of Texas Tech, 49-21. The Pack will be heavily favored to send the Heels off to a 0-4 start to the 2003 season.