"Give me all the credit for not having a football team ready to play the first half," head coach John Bunting said. "I'm very disappointed. I never thought that would happen, but it did."
It was apparent early on in the season that the North Carolina defense was terrible, and just as obvious that there were no quick fixes that could be implemented during the season. To drive home the point, the Tar Heels yielded 30 points to a team on Saturday that was averaging only decimal points better than 16 a game. Characteristically, the Tar Heels were unable to stop, or in some cases even slow down, the running game of its opponent.
In this game, however, the defense spent the entire first half attempting to climb out of the hole dug for them by the North Carolina offense. Only one first down in the first half and a turnover in UNC territory gave the Blue Devil offense all the opportunities it needed to build the 23-0 halftime lead.
The Blue Devils were forced to kick field goals twice in the first half after having first and goal. Over the past several games, the Tar Heel defense stiffened in the red zone. Over the course of the game, the Blue Devils held the ball for nearly 40 minutes, doubling the possession time of the UNC offense.
The defense had played what nearly amounted to two games by halftime, and remarkably held Duke to only one score in the second half. Though there is always plenty of blame to go around after a loss as demoralizing as this one, this loss isn't on the defense.
Not even the vaunted Florida State defense was able to stymie the Tar Heel offense to the extent the Blue Devils did for the first 30 minutes of this game.
Of the play of the offense in the first half, Bunting said, "I don't have an explanation for it. I would never believe that would happen to our offense because our offense has been playing quite well."
Quarterback Darian Durant was uncharacteristically off on nearly every throw, and on several occasions he was fortunate that the Blue Devils did not intercept his errant throws. Ronnie McGill, who had been establishing himself as a force at running back, was often stuffed at the line of scrimmage. If there is a stronger word for it than "embarrassing," that is what it was.
After halftime, the Tar Heel offense recorded 13 first downs and over 250 yards of offense, but the wake-up call came too late. The offense took advantage of the field position it was given by some excellent special teams play, but in the end could only make the margin of defeat closer, as if any score in a losing effort to Duke could be said to be respectable.
While the entire team will feel the sting of this defeat, the special teams should take a moment and hold their heads up. David Woolridge not only punted well, he became the leading rusher in this game by picking up a first down on a fake punt. Yes, the offense was that bad.
The return game in the second half provided a short field for the Tar Heel offense on several occasions, and the coverage teams also did their jobs.
In the midst of this defeat, athletic director Dick Baddour took a moment to affirm that Bunting will return as the head coach of the Tar Heels in 2004. The North Carolina football program, and Bunting, faces tremendous challenges.
Bunting and his staff have to secure a stellar recruiting class in the face of a 2-10 season, and a last place finish in the ACC. Without such a class, the questions about Bunting's leadership will increase in number and volume. Without on-the-field success, all Bunting and his staff have to sell to UNC fans is the hope that better players will yield better results.
The UNC football program is at its lowest point since Mack Brown's back-to-back 1-10 seasons, ironically since the last time the Blue Devils won in Chapel Hill. It will be an uphill battle to convince the UNC fans who come to Kenan Stadium to send in their checks for season tickets next year. Athletic budgets being what they are, a stadium that is two-thirds full on Saturday's places enormous strain on the coffers. Booster contributions are also adversely affected when the football program descends to this level.
To complicate matters, next year North Carolina and the ACC enter into a new era -- an era that will witness the addition of powerful football programs in Miami and Virginia Tech. The football schedule of the future will be more competitive, not less.
Perhaps most importantly, senior Jeb Terry and junior Jacque Lewis were given the opportunity to give the staff a vote of confidence after the game, and declined to comment. It may be too easy to read a lack of faith in the staff into their silence, but it certainly raises the question.
Rumors abound regarding staff changes, with some of those changes to be announced perhaps as early as this week. During the offseason, Bunting will face the challenge of making staff additions that fit in with the staff that is retained.
The chances of Bunting overcoming these challenges are formidable. In 2004, the pressure to win will be incredible, as only wins on the field will be sufficient proof in 2004 that he can get the job done. Bunting undoubtedly has solid support from the athletic director, from many former players, and from a significant part of the fan base and important boosters, but he used a lot of that capital this season.
Next year, it will be "Just win, Baby."