It may be too early for fans to panic, but it is apparent that UNC's defense could be in for another long season among the nation's worst.
"It was just demoralizing to our defense," linebacker Tommy Richardson said.
"I know we've got guys on our defense that want to be good," defensive tackle Jonas Seawright added. "We're just going to have to work harder next week."
Carolina head coach John Bunting blasted his team in the locker room after the game, in a tirade that was audible through a concrete wall where members of the media were positioned on the other side.
Former UNC coach Bill Dooley – affectionately known by many as ‘The Old Trenchfighter' for his penchant for the running game – once said, "Why throw the ball when you can run down there and hand it to them?" Even Dooley, who remains a huge Carolina fan despite coaching stints at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, must have been impressed with the Cavaliers' ground attack against the Tar Heels.
Like a hot knife through butter, Virginia (2-0 overall, 1-0 ACC) moved the ball at will from its opening drive. The Cavaliers finished with 549 yards of total offense, 299 by way of the rush, scoring eight touchdowns with three coming from Wali Lundy. The 5-foot-10, 214-pound junior finished with 73 yards, with Michael Johnson, Jason Snelling and Alvin Pearman adding 91, 80 and 45 yards, respectively.
"They had three base runs they ran against us and we couldn't stop any of them," Bunting said. "Those are base runs we practiced against all week…nothing different."
Ahead 28-10 and with the Tar Heels (1-1, 0-1) on the verge of making its first stop of the day, Virginia coach Al Groh – an NFL coaching veteran with an NFL-caliber offensive line – demonstrated his total lack of respect for the UNC defense. Facing a 4th and inches from their own 30, the Cavaliers went for it. With Carolina stacked up front, Pearman turned the corner for a seven-yard gain.
"That's a bold play," Bunting said. "Good for them; bad for us."
Then, two plays later, Marques Hagans completed a 45-yard pass to Pearman, who later scored the first of his two rushing touchdowns from five yards out.
"One of the things that's true in every game is that players make the difference, not coaches," Groh said. "Those offensive linemen – Elton Brown, (Zac) Yarbrough, and that crew – Jason Snelling and the tailbacks – that's how we did it."
During the drive, Fred Sparkman recorded his and the team's first sack of the season. But the Cavaliers would take a 35-10 lead into intermission and the rout was on.
As was the case most of last season, the Tar Heels' only hopes hinged on their offense scoring enough points to keep up the pace on the scoreboard. However, they got off to a slow start with a quick three-and-out, after Virginia struck quickly on the game's first possession.
Carries of five and three yards by Ronnie McGill set up a 3rd and 2. But Darian Durant's first pass fell just off Derrele Mitchell's outstretched fingertips as he was running down the sideline.
The Wahoos got the ball back on their own 35 and again executed their offense to near perfection, with Lundy scoring his second touchdown from four yards out. With 6:40 left in the first quarter, Virginia led 14-0 – in a game that even at that point did not look as close as the score indicated.
"[Jason Brown] was saying, ‘Keep your head up. We've got a long season ahead of us. And even though the margin of victory was pretty big, if we lost 10-9, it would still be a loss,'" Durant said.
When Hagans did drop back to pass and was pressured, on most occasions he would squirt free and turn what looked like a certain sack into a big play.
Hagans finished 10-of-12 passing for 209 yards. He also ran for 30 yards.
Durant, the holder of 47 UNC records, completed 11 of his 15 attempts for 128 yards and a touchdown with one interception. Matt Baker, who relieved Durant early in the fourth quarter, was 8-for-9 for 171 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown pass to Chad Scott, who had also scored a rushing touchdown.
Carolina picked up its first 1st down of the game on its second offensive series when Jarwarski Pollock made a circus grab for a 29-yard gain. Then two plays later, it appeared that Durant fumbled the ball away – something the television replay seemed to confirm. The Tar Heels had gotten a break. And after a pass interference call gave them another first down, Virginia was fed a mouthful of McGill, who finished the game with 67 yards on 10 carries.
But on a 3rd and inches at the 1-yard line, McGill was stuffed and Connor Barth and company set up for a field goal attempt. Then Bunting called timeout; the Tar Heels were going for it. Virginia got early penetration on the right side of the line and McGill was stopped for a two-yard loss.
"It was just a run that was supposed to go inside, or I could bounce it out," McGill said. "They had leverage on the outside, so I tried to cut it up. There really wasn't anywhere to go. I could only just try to pound it up in there."
The Wahoos took over on downs and quickly gained breathing room with an 11-yard pass from Hagans to wide receiver Michael McGrew. Lundy's third rushing touchdown would later cap a 97-yard Virginia drive.
Trailing 21-0 shortly after the start of the second quarter, the Tar Heels' offense got in gear. Runs of 28 yards by McGill and 11 yards by Jacque Lewis, along with a 12-yard screen pass to Adarius Bowman to convert a 3rd and 9, led to Carolina's first score – a seven-yard touchdown pass from Durant to Mitchell. Barth's extra point made it 21-7, and one lone UNC fan seated just below the press box amidst a sea of orange-clad patrons finally had reason to cheer.
But there were to be no miraculous comebacks on this day.
The Tar Heels scoring drive went 87 yards and took 4:57 off the clock and the UNC defense had just gotten its most extensive rest since the game's onset. That rest would be extended, because on the ensuing kickoff, Virginia's Marquis Weeks started right and then broke left to daylight for a 100-yard touchdown return to make the score 28-7.
"That just can't happen," Bunting said. "Anytime you try to build momentum and have two kickoff returns for touchdowns (UVa returned one kickoff for a touchdown and returned one 93 yards to the UNC 1), that's just really poor play, poor coaching and that's got to get corrected."
After a 42-yard runback from Mike Mason gave the Tar Heels good starting field position at their own 42, it looked like the drive would stall when on a 3rd and 10, Durant was trapped in his own backfield and seemed destined to suffer his second sack of the series. But in classic Durant fashion, he escaped, rolled to his right and found Bowman for 52 yards down to the Virginia 6. The drive stalled however and Carolina had to settle for a 22-yard Barth field goal.
It was the first field goal by a UNC freshman since Josh McGee converted his first in 1996. However, Barth also missed his first extra point attempt of his college career following Baker's touchdown pass to Scott.
Special teams was a bright spot for UNC in last week's 49-38 win over William & Mary, but Virginia amassed 238 kickoff return yards on the day – with 132 and a touchdown coming from Marquis Weeks, and 93 by Pearman, who set up his own scoring run after returning the ball to the Carolina 1.
"I expect to take a very long, extensive, scrutinizing look at the guys who are covering kickoffs," Bunting said. "If guys aren't playing hard, they will be off that kickoff team. They will not get a second chance.
Virginia, which hosts Akron and Syracuse before traveling to Clemson on Oct. 7, fed the Tar Heels more of the same in the second half to complete its complete domination of the game. Carolina returns home to face Georgia Tech.
By the way, the aforementioned Carolina fan's head never popped up again.
"We've got to do a better job of coaching these players and getting them in better positions," Bunting said. "We've got to hold them to a higher standard as we get ready for this week's game.
"I'm looking forward to next week. I'm just glad this doesn't count for two losses or three."