Another game, another 500-plus yards given up on defense. Matt Schaub and the Virginia offense did whatever they wanted when they wanted, scoring on their last six possessions of the game. It would have been seven straight possessions, but Virginia head coach Al Groh let the game slip mercifully in the record books as his team was poised to score yet again.
The Cavaliers rolled up yards in the air and on the ground. You get the feeling that if there had been a water hazard in the middle of Kenan Stadium, they would have done it by sea as well. Schaub threw for 284 yards, missing only three passes out of 22 attempts. It was as though Schaub and his teammates were playing toss-and-catch after classes with no defenders on the field.
Virginia came close to having two backs go over 100 yards in this contest. Wali Lundy was the workhorse, galloping for 138 yards on 28 attempts, but Alvin Pearman got into the act as well, accounting for 94 yards on the day.
The Cavaliers succeeded on 8 of 12 third-down plays, converting on third-and-eight twice, and as if they needed it, North Carolina committed penalties bailing out the Virginia offense when they weren’t able to convert on their own. They punted only once in the contest.
The problem North Carolina has had since Julius Peppers departed for the NFL, the inability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, has been easily the most identifiable problem the past two games. Schaub, like Phillip Rivers last week, simply had as long as he wanted to find open receivers.
Larry Edwards and Fred Sparkman, true freshmen linebackers, saw their most extended playing time on Saturday, with Edwards starting. For the first time this season, the name of a linebacker topped the defensive statistics. Shockingly, there were two linebackers leading the team in tackles – Edwards and Sparkman with nine each. Edwards recovered a fumble, recorded two tackles for loss, and a sack for a 14-yard loss.
As encouraging as it is to see linebackers making tackles instead of the safeties Dexter Reid and Mahlon Carey, the end result was the same – over 500 yards of total offense by the opponent. But if you had your eyes open, the unmistakable beginnings of the future where on the field, making tackles.
Looking on the bright side, quarterback Darian Durant and the rest of the Tar Heel offense will be spared the standard “Are you tired of carrying the defense?” media question this week. The Tar Heels laid an egg on offense as well as defense.
In previous games, opponents had a difficult time getting pressure on Durant. N.C. State began finding ways to pressure Durant, and Virginia made him run for his life for much of this contest, sacking him five times.
The basic problem stems from an inability to get anything out of the running game. Unless you are an option offense, there is no way your quarterback should be your leading rusher, as Durant is.
As head coach John Bunting noted following the game, “Failure to run the football is something that's hurting us to be able to sustain drives.” Virginia, prior to this contest, wasn’t particularly noted for its stout run defense, yielding over 160 yards per game coming into Kenan Stadium. Yet, on 25 carries the Tar Heels were only able to net 58 yards of rushing, a paltry 2.3 yards per carry.
With little or no ability to run the ball successfully, opponents are increasingly paying less attention to the non-existent Tar Heel running game and concentrating on taking away the pass. North Carolina is entering contests as a one-dimensional offense, and it is getting more and more difficult to protect Durant.
The staff has been criticized for rotating the backs within each game. In the past two games, Jacque Lewis has gotten the most carries, and against Virginia he had 10 of the 14 carries by the tailbacks. Since the Tar Heels have consistently been playing from behind all season, it has been difficult to get the tailbacks sufficient carries for any one of them to find a rhythm.
To Durant’s credit, he still found a way to complete 67 percent of his passes (27 of 40) and passed for over 200 yards, but was unable to get deep on the Virginia secondary. With pressure coming from all angles, he was fortunate to get the ball in the air at all.
This weakness of the offense is receiving increasing notice from opponents. Going into the remainder of the season, the Tar Heels are going to have to find a way to run the ball effectively to find success on offense.
Finally, the Tar Heels committed momentum-killing penalties on Saturday, something an offense burdened with so much of the load cannot do.
“There's not much good to come from that game, at all, with the exception of the way the special teams played,” Bunting said following the loss.
Again, the special teams acquitted themselves well this week. Again, with one exception. This week, Mike Mason was flagged for roughing the kicker as the Tar Heel defense had forced a third-and-seventeen inside the twenty-yard line. The penalty kept the Virginia drive alive, though they stalled it themselves on the Tar Heel one-yard line as the game ended. Penalties of that nature, coming from a freshman trying to make a play, you can live with. Had his timing and angle been a bit better, the result would have been a big play.
The Tar Heels are noticeably improved in kick returns and kick coverage, and that has been the one constant for this team all season.
“They are a bunch of young guys, playing extremely hard, who have some talent and some speed,” Bunting said of the special teams. “They are being asked to do techniques and fundamentals that are sometimes a little easier than offense or defense in some ways. But they are also involved in a lot of speed and space and execution. James Webster is doing a wonderful job with those guys.”
The Tar Heels travel to Greenville to face the East Carolina Pirates, also standing at 0-5. If the Tar Heels come back without a win, the number of disappointed and frustrated Tar Heel fans will increase exponentially.