"It might be the most painful loss of my entire life," head coach John Bunting said.
With no home wins in two years, and only one win in the 2003 season, the Tar Heels had a win at home over a quality opponent within their grasp on Saturday. A win would have felt like the Tar Heel football team, and program, was finally getting some traction. The loss feels like the Tar Heels have slid a little further down the slope of UNC football futility.
Saturday, the opportunity to modify, even modestly, how the football program is perceived slipped right through UNC's fingers. That pain might take the longest to heal. Those opportunities are too rare to let them pass by.
In this game, the Tar Heels allowed 598 yards of total offense. The defensive stats have flirted with the worst in NCAA Division 1-A all season, and will undoubtedly reclaim that spot this week. But those defensive stats don't begin to tell the story of this game.
After being run over by the Sun Devil offense for most of the three previous quarters, the Tar Heel defense began to bow its back in the fourth. A 12-play, 59-yard drive by the Sun Devils came up empty as they missed a 32-yard field goal wide left. The next Tar Heel possession resulted in a touchdown and the lead, 31-27 with 7:43 left to play.
The defense then gave the ball back to the offense with 4:13 left, as ASU failed to convert a fourth and eight at the UNC 36-yard line. The Tar Heels went three-and-out, and Arizona State began its next series at their 42-yard line. The defense once again stood its ground, forcing an ASU three-and-out.
By now, everyone knows the rest of the story. The Tar Heel offense failed to convert a third and two feet, and ASU drove 61 yards to score the final touchdown, covering the last five yards as time expired on the clock. Another "L," and another week to talk about defensive breakdowns.
It is not that there aren't plenty of defensive breakdowns to talk about. But first, let's acknowledge that Andrew Walter is a good quarterback, and Arizona State is a good offensive football team. They were coming fresh off a 59-14 shredding of the Oregon Ducks, the team that ended Michigan's national title pretensions. The Tar Heel defense, unsurprisingly, allowed the ASU offense to churn up yardage in bunches. No one I know expected it to be otherwise.
The lack of defensive pressure on opposing quarterbacks has been well-documented this season, but the rush defense has been non-existent as well. The Arizona tailbacks, Loren Wade and Hakim Hill, rolled up over 200 yards rushing, which is about par for the course for opposing tailbacks this season against the Heels.
That leaves only the 408 passing yards to talk about. With little or no defensive pressure from the front seven and the secondary almost always in a run-prevent mode, opposing offenses find passing lanes easily and open receivers everywhere. Walter picked apart the UNC pass defense, much as UVa's Matt Schaub and NCSU's Phillip Rivers had in recent games.
The Sun Devils converted 10-21 third down plays on this day and got them running and passing. From a big picture point-of-view, there is no strength to talk about on UNC's defense, only weaknesses.
As to individual players, the play of true freshman Larry Edwards, who recorded 12 tackles Saturday, including 9 solo stops, continues to be a positive on defense. He is the third-leading tackler on the team, even though he has only seen significant action at linebacker since the Virginia game.
You also have to love Edwards's attitude. When asked about his individual performance, Edwards said, "That doesn't matter to me. We play for each other, and I feel I played OK for my team. We played with great spirit, and I feel like my teammates played good for me as well. When they make good plays, it makes me want to make even more."
There were also bright spots from other Tar Heels on defense. Corner Lionell Green may have had his best game, true freshmen Isaiah Thomas and Fred Sparkman drew some praise from the crowd on some plays. Dexter Reid had 16 tackles, but as we have all learned by now, having a safety lead the team in tackles isn't a good thing.
A lot of the game chatter this week will focus on the inability of the defense to stop the final ASU drive. The Sun Devils ran off 61 yards with only 36 seconds remaining to win the game, and some will claim that it was this drive that cost the Tar Heels a win. The UNC defense gave up 598 yards and allows a game-winning drive with little time on the clock. They cannot be exonerated from their part in this defeat, but as noted below, the offense can't escape all criticism for this loss.
Football, as has been often noted, is a team sport. The relationships between the success of one unit and the failure of another aren't always the focus of game recaps. In this game, they stood out.
The Tar Heel defense has failed to live up to even its very modest expectations for this season, no denying that. But too often the UNC offense has turned anemic at critical junctures of a game, as it did Saturday. That is no help to the defense, which has enough problems of its own.
Let's also acknowledge that the Arizona State defense is average, at best. If the Sun Devils were an ACC team, they would currently rank in sixth place in total defense. Yet the UNC offense only managed 331 yards of total offense Saturday and converted only three of eleven third-down attempts.
Aside from the late fourth quarter offensive ineptitude, a fumble in second quarter by Willie Parker didn't help the cause either. The fumble came as the Tar Heels were up 14-6 and had driven the ball off their own 20 to the ASU 24, and a field goal seemed the worst-case scenario. Singling out this fumble is probably unfair to Parker, but the momentum shift was huge. The Sun Devils scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion on their next series to knot the score at 14-14.
"My mentality is that a first down you don't get in the first quarter is just as important as one in the fourth quarter," quarterback Darian Durant said. "So those last two drives--they were important--but it's not like (those drives cost us the game)." True as far as it goes, as that second quarter turnover demonstrates.
But as to those two critical fourth-quarter possessions, the offense went three-and-out on both while the Tar Heels were nursing a four-point lead. The offense held the ball for a grand total of two minutes and thirty-two seconds on its last two series. When the game was on the line the offense failed to convert a third and two feet that would have sealed a Tar Heel victory. It didn't happen.
"We didn't do what we needed to," offensive lineman Jeb Terry said following the game. "We get that third-and-one and the game is over and we are in here smiling and happy--not like this."
One goal of the UNC offense this season has been to run the ball more effectively, and despite their late play on Saturday it has begun to show some signs of life in the past two weeks. The four tailbacks used Saturday (Jacque Lewis, Ronnie McGill, Willie Parker, and Chad Scott) ran for a respectable 4.8 yards-per-carry average. But, no matter what the yards-per-carry average is, if you can't convert third and two feet when the game is on the line - well, do you really have a running game at all?
Running game aside, perhaps the lack of effectiveness of the passing game has been even more puzzling. Perhaps it does not help that North Carolina ran the ball 20 of its 28 first down plays (in contrast, ASU had as many passes on first down as it did runs), and perhaps, justifiably, the focus has been to get the running game going. As much as North Carolina desires to build an effective running game, the effect of that effort seems to be a less-effective offense overall.
In the passing game, part of the problem could be the failure of anyone other than Jarwarski Pollock to emerge as a playmaker on a consistent basis at wide receiver. Though others have had their moments, no one has established themselves as a go-to receiver. With a youthful receiver corps, the odds are one or more will emerge over time, but time is running out for the North Carolina 2003 football season.
In games where the Tar Heels have kept it close, ECU and ASU, the offense tends to play very conservatively. But more than play-calling or offensive philosophy, the offense needs to learn to step up and make plays when the game hangs in the balance. That is what the Sun Devil offense did on Saturday, and what the Tar Heel offense did not. That was the difference in this game.
When an offense scores 31 points and holds a four-point lead with only seconds remaining, it would be unfair to saddle them completely with this loss. But it is a team sport, and the offense had their opportunity to salt this game away.
A couple of big mistakes on special teams scarred an otherwise solid effort, as always seems to be the case this season. They allowed a 28-yard punt return to give ASU a shorter field on their last drive, and if they had made an effective stop there it may have made a difference in the outcome.
In the first half, a Sun Devil punt careened off returner Mike Mason and ASU recovered the ball at the North Carolina 12-yard line. That turnover resulted in a field goal to give ASU a 20-14 lead at halftime.
Otherwise, the "teams" yielded only 9.2 yards per punt return, averaged 40.8 per punt, and Dan Orner connected on a 50-yard field goal. Orner has now connected on three of four field goals of 50 yards or more this season. Jonas Seawright blocked an extra point attempt.
David Woolridge is getting more opportunities to punt, and currently holds a 49.3 average on six punts this season. The rap on Woolridge is that he is slower getting off the ball, but his punts have better hang-time and distance. It seems that it would be easier to teach Woolridge to kick it quicker, than it would be to teach Lafferty to kick it longer. In fairness to Lafferty, he has seemed to improve during the season. Without question, however, Woolridge has the stronger leg.
The Tar Heels travel to Death Valley to take on the Clemson Tigers, whose last outing was a 17-15 loss to N.C. State on Thursday night. Not only do the Tigers get extra time to prepare, they will be looking to get back on track with a win over the Tar Heels.
The Tigers blew out the Tar Heels last year 42-12 in Kenan Stadium. How the Tar Heels respond after a heartbreaking loss and during a season that looks beyond redemption will say a lot about the character of this team.
Painful losses often take longer to get out of a team's mind, and that does not bode well for the Tar Heels.