The Tar Heels (2-2, 1-1 ACC) entertained hopes of backing up their best performance of the season by making a statement against No. 22 Louisville (3-0) Saturday at Kenan Stadium. Instead, they were soundly whipped into submission from the game’s onset, eventually succumbing 34-0.
“[Louisville] took us out behind the shed, took our pants down, and belted us,” UNC coach John Bunting said.
It was supposed to be a shootout with two of the nation’s most effective scoring arsenals set to slug it out in front of what was expected to be a resurgent UNC fan base. However, only one offense showed up.
The loss marked the first time the Tar Heels were shutout since their 37-0 season opening loss to Florida State last year.
Carolina, which entered the game ranked No. 12 nationally in total offense and averaging 478.3 yards per game, was held to 222 yards, including just 77 on the ground.
Only one game removed from his best collegiate outing in which he ran for a career-high 164 yards and two touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets, Jacque Lewis could only muster 29 yards rushing on eight carries.
“They were stacking eight people in the box,” Lewis said. “Their defense ran around all day. Every time we touched the ball we tried to make something happen.”
Quarterback Darian Durant struggled as well, overthrowing his targets on several occasions. His 80 yards passing were the fewest he’s thrown since the 76 yards he passed for in relief of Ronald Curry during the 2001 Peach Bowl. Durant also saw a streak of 10 consecutive games with a touchdown pass snapped.
However, it’s only fair to note a deep pass he threw in the fourth quarter that was dropped near the end zone, would have likely increased his totals and kept his touchdown streak in tact.
“We had to start with taking away their running game,” Louisville coach Bob Petrino said. “It was a double-edged sword – contain the run, but at the same time, with his maneuverability, [Durant] could scramble around and make plays.”
The one and only time Carolina entered the red zone – in the fourth quarter with the game’s outcome long since decided – backup quarterback Matt Baker fumbled the ball away at the 5-yard line. Conversely, Louisville capitalized on all five of its trips inside the UNC 20.
“We have a very talented quarterback, a very talented receiving corps, a very talented offensive line and very talented backs,” senior center Jason Brown said. “But the thing is execution – being able to go out and do it week after week. We do it in practice. We sweat and we bleed every day, but why it’s not carrying over to game day, I don’t know.”
The defense did have moments when it backed up its improved performance last week by keeping the Tar Heels within reach throughout the first half.
But the Cardinals, ahead 10-0, quickly struck after intermission on a 37-yard touchdown run by Eric Shelton.
The uninspired effort, coupled with a nearly perfect performance by the Cardinals, took an announced 49,000 mostly Carolina fans out of the game before many of them could even find their seats.
“I know the kids are disappointed and all our great fans are disappointed, and yours truly don’t feel very good about it all,” Bunting said. “We have to find a way to play a heck of a lot better than that, and when we have opportunities, we have to make plays.”
From the opening drive, when the Cardinals marched 77 yards on 14 plays and chewed up 6:36 of the clock, it was clear the impressive performance from the week before had soured into a moribund effort.
“We had too many distractions,” Brown said. “We had too many people getting in our ear telling us we were a great team again.”
With No. 8 Florida State on the horizon, for the UNC players to remain upbeat following the game seemed to come with even more difficulty than after the 56-24 loss at Virginia two weeks ago.
Sophomore linebacker Fred Sparkman reportedly said he saw teammates with their heads down during and after the game, a characteristic Bunting said he was unaware of and did not care to discuss much during the post game press conference.
“It’s not something I’ve addressed at this point,” he said. “I’m not sure how you were raised; I know how I was raised and I’ll never put my head down – never have, never will.”
While many Carolina fans would have likely been satisfied with a 2-2 record through the first four games of the season, the decisive way that the Tar Heels were beaten by Virginia and Louisville - coupled with the murderer's row of opponents that await over the next six weeks - has been excessively disheartening.
But as Bunting said, “Round Four is over,” and now UNC must try to regroup and prepare for its upcoming trip to Tallahassee.
“A loss is a loss,” Durant said. “Whether you lose by one or by 30, it’s the same thing. I guess the best thing that came out of this was that it wasn’t a conference game.”
Defensive tackle Terry Hunter and tailback Vince Wilson played, bringing the number of true freshmen to play for UNC this season to 13 – the highest number for the Tar Heels in 10 years. Twelve true freshmen got on the field for Carolina last season.
Louisville’s 30 first downs were the most allowed by the Tar Heels since yielding 31 to Wake Forest in 2003.
Freshman Hilee Taylor picked up his second sack in two games – the only two sacks the Tar Heels have recorded this season.