“Things went from bad to worse to worst,” head coach John Bunting said following the loss. “What’s a worse word than worst? How about disaster? It went from bad to worse to disaster. The team unraveled during that four- or five-minute stretch before halftime.”
Perhaps the worst part about Saturday’s performance is that the UNC defense gave their fans reason to hope early on. Sure, the Terrapins moved the ball at will, racking up yards between the twenties, but the Tar Heel defense stiffened near the goal line on Maryland’s first two possessions, forcing Nick Novak field goals. Such is the state of the North Carolina defense that holding the opposition to a field goal is seen as defensive prowess.
Then came the record-setting 39-point second quarter. Yep, 39 points in a single quarter. North Carolina has faced some fairly potent offenses over the years, but their defense – nor any other ACC defense – has never managed to yield that many points in a quarter in the history of the league.
What the Tar Heels had hoped they were building during the 2003 season was razed to the ground in the span of fifteen minutes. “I don’t know the reason,” free safety Dexter Reid said. “I’m not going to sit here and make excuses for why the defense is not making plays. There were changes, and we just didn’t respond well.”
Some of UNC’s defensive schemes were adjusted prior to this contest. The word was that the Tar Heels would play more “press” defense, bring the corners up on the Maryland receivers, and not allow the five-to-ten yard cushion that allowed opponents to throw quick outs for easy yardage.
The Tar Heel players seemed to believe that the defensive schemes used were not the problem. “I feel like we’re in the right position and we’ve got the right calls,” cornerback Chris Hawkins said. “We’re not making the plays; that’s all. I have no explanation. If I knew that, then we would be making them.”
For those fans who advocate constant blitzes, the Tar Heels were burned on more than a few occasions when blitzes failed to reach Maryland quarterback Scott McBrien. “We couldn’t get the quarterback down,” Bunting said. “We were close, but we couldn’t quite make it [and] we needed to make those plays to stay in the game, but we didn’t.”
Though game statistics are meaningless in the face of such a total meltdown, for the second time this season the Tar Heels yielded more than 600 yards to an offense, and has allowed seven of its nine opponents over 500 yards of total offense.
Maryland has not been an offensive powerhouse this season. In their last outing, the Terrapins managed only three points against Georgia Tech. It is not the sign of a rebuilding defense to yield over 600 yards to an average offense in the ninth game of the season.
On defense, the Tar Heels are back to square one.
In the first quarter, the Tar Heels were doing something few teams have been able to do this season, rush the ball well against the Terrapins. It was a sensible and successful approach, as the Tar Heel running game has gotten progressively better over the course of the season.
On their first drive, the Tar Heels moved the ball 73 yards, only 10 of those yards through the air. Chad Scott took the ball in from the three-yard line and the Heels led, 7-3. After that initial drive, the Tar Heels would manage only another 45 yards rushing for the rest of the game.
Once the Maryland offense had completely leveled the North Carolina defense, plans for running the ball had to be scrapped as the Tar Heel offense found itself in a panic mode attempting to gain back the points yielded by the defense.
Some say that the turning point in the game was an interception thrown by Darian Durant when the Terrapins led 24-21 in the second quarter. Don’t buy that argument for a minute. At that point, the Terrapins had scored 10 unanswered points and were already in the process of demolishing the Tar Heels. This game wasn’t about turning points, it was about domination.
By halftime, the Heels were down 45-21, and a Maryland defense that is second in the ACC in sacks simply pinned their ears back in an all-out assault against Durant. The North Carolina offense was forced to be one-dimensional in a futile effort to play catch-up football, and the results were predictable. The Tar Heels failed to score in the second half and the Maryland rout was complete.
“We just have to play both the sides of the ball,” Durant said. “The defense has got to stop them and the offense has got to score. We started off real well in the first quarter, but we just didn’t finish the game.”
When the defense allows a score on virtually every possession it is just too much to expect for the offense to keep up. Maryland’s defense has been stout this season, ranking 21st in the nation prior to Saturday’s game.
There are only two teams in the nation, Texas Tech and Bowling Green, that average more yards on offense than the UNC defense allows per game. The question for the North Carolina football team coming into the season was whether the offense could score enough points to overcome the deficiencies on defense. That question has been answered.
Mike Mason is a special player, and he proved that again on Saturday with a 96-yard kickoff return. David Woolridge proved for the second game in a row that he is a capable punter, and the good news is that he is only a freshman.
The bad news is that once again a special teams breakdown led to an opponent’s score. For the second week in a row, a punt bounced off a Tar Heel and into the hands of the opponent.
The Tar Heels face a Wake Forest team fresh off a 45-17 defeat of the Clemson Tigers. The Demon Deacons rolled up 321 of their 400 yards of offense on the ground.
The game is in Kenan Stadium and the Tar Heels are running out of opportunities to break the losing streak at home, which now stretches back to a win against SMU in 2001. Against an offensive rushing attack as powerful as Wake Forest’s, it may be another long afternoon in Chapel Hill.