Coming off a heartbreaking loss last Saturday against Arizona State, no one would have been surprised if the Tar Heels had played an uninspired game on Saturday. That was not the case.
"Our kids just played with a tremendous amount of courage. One of these days these guys will be rewarded with a win," head coach John Bunting said following the game. "They can only be rewarded today with the fact that they played hard. That's tough on them and that's tough on me for them, because I care about them."
The play that best illustrates the defensive struggles of the Tar Heel defense this season came in the third period. With Carolina leading 21-16, the defense had forced a fourth down after the Tigers had driven to their own 31-yard line. A field goal would have been chancy, since Aaron Hunt's leg is not of the fifty-yard plus variety. With seven yards to go for a first down, the only sensible choice under normal conditions would have been for the Tigers to pooch punt the ball and try to down it close to the goal line.
Instead, the Tigers chose to attempt to convert fourth and seven. Against even a mediocre defense, the Tigers would have been punting. Charlie Whitehurst took the snap and completed a 30-yard pass to Derrick Hamilton, who was bracketed by two Tar Heel defenders. Hamilton won the jump ball and a play later the Tigers scored on a Whitehurst sneak. After the extra point, the Tigers led 23-21.
Though the pass and throw were great plays by the Tigers, the most remarkable part of the play was the decision to go for it on fourth down at all. It demonstrates the lack of respect the Tar Heel defense has earned this season from opponents.
Last week, Larry Edwards, a true freshmen, continued to show the type of play that will begin to earn back the respect of offenses. This week, another true freshman, Isaiah Thomas, gave Tar Heel fans more reason to hope that the Tar Heel defense will regain some of the toughness that has sent so many Carolina players to the NFL. Though statistically, Thomas only recorded two tackles, one for loss, he is becoming a force at nose tackle. There were other individual standouts on defense, including another young player, Alden Blizzard, a red-shirt freshman who has come on of late at the defensive end spot, but the overall results were the same – over five hundred yards allowed on defense.
The North Carolina offense began this game looking as if it were going to record a lackluster performance. A couple of three-and-outs to begin the game made it seem as if the Tar Heels were about to suffer a loss similar to the 42-12 shellacking the Tigers inflicted last season at Kenan Stadium.
Then something remarkable happened – all of a sudden the Tar Heels began to move the ball, not just through the air, but on the ground as well. The Tar Heel running game showed some spark against East Carolina and Arizona State, but this was against a Clemson run defense allowing only 112 yards-per-game on the ground.
Chad Scott, Jacque Lewis, and Ronnie McGill ran for 171 yards for a 6.5 yards-per-carry average – and none of them was UNC's leading rusher. That honor went to quarterback Darian Durant, who rushed for 110 yards, which included a stunning 63-yard gallop for a touchdown.
Perhaps more surprising is that the Tar Heel tailbacks now have seven rushing touchdowns this season. That stat won't set any records, but all of last season the Tar Heel tailbacks combined for only three rushing touchdowns all season.
With tight end Bobby Blizzard beginning to regain his pre-season form (he had four catches for 31 yards on Saturday), and the true freshmen Adarius Bowman and Mike Mason adding some punch to the receiving corps, the Tar Heel offense may be ready to resurrect itself into the type of offense that fans expected to see this season.
Durant's run of 63 yards, his three interceptions, and the fumble at the goal line are the noteworthy facts of his play during Saturday's game, but there is more to say about the Tar Heels' junior quarterback. Durant split time with senior Ron Curry his freshman year and missed four games last season due to injury. He is eight games into his junior year and is now the all-time UNC record holder for total offense.
It is surprising that this individual honor isn't getting more notice. Durant's record as a starter is no reflection on his skills, dedication, or toughness. It is the Tar Heels' lack of success on the field during his tenure that has taken the luster off what is a remarkable individual achievement.
Recapping the play of special teams has become a broken record. Once again, one horrendous breakdown blemishes an otherwise solid effort, and once again that breakdown cost the Tar Heels points. Derrick Hamilton's remarkable 100-yard kickoff return not only notched points on the scoreboard, it shifted the momentum back to the Clemson Tigers and got their fans into the game.
This week, David Woolridge handled all the punting duties and averaged a respectable 44.2 yards-per-punt. Woolridge also gets good hang time on his punts, as evidenced by the 3.3 yards-per-return average by Clemson. The Tar Heels have been looking for a solution here for two years, and it appears they have found it.
The Tar Heels travel to College Park to face the Maryland Terrapins. It will be interesting to see if North Carolina's resurgent running game can continue its success against the Terrapins.
Last week this columnist wrote that the performance of the Tar Heels against Clemson would say a lot about the character of this team. Though it was still an "L," the effort can't be questioned. Can they sustain that effort after two losses of a similar nature? If they don't that may be the most surprising event of all.