Given the fact that the Pack rolled up 615 yards of offense, one would think this section of “Between the Lines” would be very brief. It won’t be. Failing to note the problems won’t make them go away.
Going into the season, North Carolina’s secondary was a unit once thought to have respectable depth. Saturday that depth was slashed as the Tar Heels were without reserve corner Michael Waddell (ankle sprain) while starting corner Lionell Green injured his shoulder at Wednesday’s practice. Green was inserted as the starter this week because Wisconsin exploited the play of Derrick Johnson. To further dilute the depth there, starting corner Cedric Holt was injured during the game and is out for the year.
With a quarterback who will be the second-most prolific passer in NCAA history, the all-time record holder in ACC history in Phillip Rivers, and league-leading receiver Jericho Cotchery, the Wolfpack had a field day in the air against the Tar Heels. Rivers connected on an astounding 77 percent of his passes on the day, while Cotchery rolled up 217 yards receiving on nine catches.
Like Chris Rix, R.J. Anderson, and Jim Sorgi, Rivers benefited from an anemic UNC pass rush. Even with the Tar Heels blitzing six and seven players, the quarterback still had time to throw and had fewer pass defenders to worry about while doing it. With the UNC secondary banged up, this made Rivers’ task that much easier.
The problems on defense -- poor tackling, poor execution, and in some cases just not enough athletes -- have been well documented. The most distressing part of what UNC fans are witnessing is that the Tar Heel defense is without question even more porous than a year ago, even though there weren’t significant personnel losses on that side of the ball.
That is the reason that howls of “poor coaching” are emanating from the Tar Heel faithful. Those cries are beginning to resonate and gain credibility because other factors such as youth, lack of talent, lack of execution, aren’t as noticeable in other areas of team play.
In his post-game comments, Bunting said, “People talk about silver linings, but all I know is we just kept playing, kept fighting. I'm extremely disappointed. We've got to do a better job of getting these guys ready to play each week. I thought a lot of kids out there played very, very hard.”
Were there any “silver linings” on Saturday on defense? Anyone observing the goal line stand had to note that true freshman Isaiah Thomas played a key role in that stop. True freshmen Larry Edwards and Fred Sparkman also gave UNC fans a glimmer of hope for the future. Mahlon Carey continues to play well at strong safety. Defensive tackle Shelton Bynum saw his first significant action of the year. These players will have prominent roles on the UNC defense for years to come. Chase Page is a tenacious fighter who almost single-handedly refuses to let the UNC defense give up.
Though the true freshmen have been inserted too slowly for most impatient UNC fans, their play on Saturday was evidence that the talent on the defense received a shot in the arm this past year. That they are competing for playing time, and perhaps spots as starters at some point this season, says a great deal about the hand the defensive coaches were dealt.
But what UNC fans don’t want to hear is that the defense is several years away from being competitive. The defense needs to show noticeable improvement over the remaining eight contests on the schedule. More importantly the staff has to be able to say with confidence and enthusiasm that the UNC defense will be significantly improved in 2004. Most importantly, they need to deliver on that promise.
The challenge to the coaching staff is clear. Expectations about defensive improvement are lagging too far behind results on the field. Though answers to the problems may not be easy, the staff will not silence the questions until there are tangible results on the field.
The offenses that UNC has faced to date are the most potent offenses they will face all season. N.C. State ranks 5th in the nation in total offense, Syracuse ranks 8th, Florida State ranks 20th, while Wisconsin checks in at No. 26. It can be argued with some merit that the high ranking of those teams are due in part to their play against UNC, but after four and five games played, it is clear those offenses are capable units.
All the teams remaining on the UNC schedule are currently ranked 49th or below in total offense nationally. Arizona State, Duke, Wake Forest, East Carolina, and Georgia Tech are all currently ranked in the bottom third of the NCAA in total offense. The opportunity to improve is there, and the defensive production can only improve as the true freshmen get more and more playing time.
If the defensive production doesn’t improve significantly, there will only be more unanswered questions and more howls from the fans.
The offense began to show some of the promise of the early season in this game. There was a lot of stellar individual play and in general a “never-say-die” attitude about the entire offense.
Of particular note was the play of the three true freshmen who formed what many believed was the best wide receiver class in the nation a year ago. Mike Mason, perhaps the speediest of the three, is now tied with Jacque Lewis as UNC’s second leading receiver with 13 catches. The Tar Heel record for catches by a true freshman is 38, set by Kory Bailey in 1998, and Mason is on pace to eclipse that mark.
Adarius Bowman and Jesse Holley both caught touchdown passes against N.C. State. Holley had his second touchdown reception of the season, a 24-yarder from Darian Durant. Bowman turned what looked to be a medium-yardage catch into a 76-yard touchdown pass. Andre Maddox, the speedy Wolfpack safety, did catch Bowman towards the end of the play, but Bowman showed his strength by dragging Maddox into the end zone with him.
Jarwarski Pollock continued to be Durant’s favorite target, bringing in 11 passes and eclipsing the 100-yard mark for the first time in his career. With 367 yards receiving through four games, it is possible for Pollock to become the first-ever UNC receiver with over 1,000 yards, breaking Sam Aiken’s receiving record set last season. Pollock is third in the nation in receptions per game.
Jacque Lewis continued to show that he can be a playmaker when he scored on a screen pass from 64-yards out. It is troubling that North Carolina still lacks a single all-purpose tail back, and none of the Tar Heel tail backs have shown they can be a consistent threat rushing the ball.
The offensive line performed creditably, particularly considering that the Tar Heels were one-dimensional from the first quarter on and that they attempted 53 passes during the game. The Wolfpack came up with three sacks, but under the circumstances the offensive line did well protecting the quarterbacks.
Speaking of quarterbacks, Darian Durant continues to demonstrate why he holds many of the all-time records at UNC in passing. Though last week Durant did not have his best game, he did everything he could on Saturday to deliver a victory for the Tar Heels. Durant had over 400 yards of total offense and it is a shame that wasn’t enough for a UNC victory.
It is no consolation for the 0-4 start, but the Tar Heels are third in the ACC and 35th in the NCAA in total offense through four games. That statistic is more instructive because the competition faced by the Tar Heels defensively balances out at this point of the season. They have faced two good defenses in FSU and Wisconsin, and two poor ones in Syracuse and N.C. State.
While it can be argued that there is more experience on the offensive side of the ball, the effectiveness of the offense highlights the disparity that fans see on the defensive side of the ball. From a talent perspective, it is difficult to maintain that North Carolina just happened to recruit more effectively on offense.
One area of improvement over a year ago is the play of the special teams. This week, there weren’t any big plays such as Waddell’s touchdown run of a week ago, and there was one special teams blunder that cost the Tar Heels a score. Bunting said in his postgame show, “Each week we have one bad play on special teams and it is a killer.”
However, on balance the Tar Heels still performed well on “teams” again this week. The blocked punt came when John Lafferty went out of the game temporarily and David Woolridge had to punt out of his own end zone without the usual fifteen-yard cushion.
North Carolina is first in the ACC in punt returns and second in kickoff returns. They are also limiting opposing special teams in kickoff returns and punt returns. The only negative on special teams is the net punting average of the Tar Heels. On a positive note, Woolridge booted a 57-yarder later in the game. The ability of Woolridge to kick the ball further down the field will benefit the team greatly the rest of the season.
This is another area that has shown that coaching can make a difference. James Webster has done a remarkable job turning around one of UNC’s liabilities and making it a strength. Again, the disparity in the improvement on special teams serves to bolster the arguments of those who point to coaching as part of the problems on defense.
The Tar Heels face the Virginia Cavaliers, fresh off a home win against Wake Forest. Matt Schaub is back under center, and the Cavs are undefeated in conference play. Last week, they rolled up 477 yards in offense against the Deacons. Though the Cavs will come into Kenan Stadium as the favorite, the Tar Heels are in need of a win badly, and a home win even more.