The loss comes before a bye week for the Heels, so they'll have some time to consider what this loss means, and to consider what the possibilities are for this team the rest of the year.
There is not much to say about the North Carolina defense, except that is was bad - very, very, bad. And not only bad, but statistically the worst performance by the Tar Heels in their history.
By halftime Utah had already exceeded what most offenses would consider a good day at the office. The Utes notched nearly 400 yards of total offense and three touchdowns tossed by their quarterback with a full half remaining to play.
Yes, the Utes do have a very good offense. The spread option, fueled by a running game that opens up a passing game that can get vertical, is becoming a more popular offense in the college ranks. Yes, the Utes have a very adept quarterback orchestrating that offense, a powerful offensive line, and good skill players that always seem to be where they are supposed to be. But even a very, very, good offense should have trouble rolling up 669 yards against any defense.
To say the UNC defense had trouble with the "option" part of the Utah defense is perfecting the art of understatement. Too often the pitch man was in position to reel off six or seven yards before the first Tar Heel defender came into view. Utah averaged 6.3 yards per carry in their rushing game.
But in this game, the defense relapsed back to the days when everything an opposing offense does works. Alex Smith, the Utah quarterback, completed an amazing 78 percent of his passes and threw four touchdown passes. It was a textbook display on how this offense is designed to work. Multiple receiver sets get the defense stretched or "spread." Option pitches to the outside forces the defense to think "run," and the entire secondary opens up to the vertical passing game.
The UNC defense has had some good moments in 2004 – bending, but breaking less than last season. They have forced more field goal attempts in the red zone, and have been modestly more successful in the takeaway column of turnover margin. But good moments were few in this game.
Later in the second half, the Tar Heels began to blitz more, attempting to get more pressure on Alex Smith. It worked on at least one occasion, when Tommy Richardson, coming in hard from the right side of the Ute offense, forced Smith to throw more quickly than he wanted. As a result, linebacker Larry Edwards picked off his second interception in as many weeks. But the Utes still picked up 270 yards in the second half.
The combined total of yards allowed, 669, goes into the record books as the most yards ever yielded by a Tar Heel defense. That stat tells you all you need to know about Saturday night's defensive performance.
Whatever the game plan was for the UNC offense, it vanished into the Salt Lake City night after the first drive. Down went Jacque Lewis. Down went Ronnie McGill. Down went Kyle Ralph. I don't serve up these injuries by way of excuse-making, but UNC has relied upon a "running back by committee" offense that has made use of the individual strengths of their backs and often went with the guy with the hot hand.
Either Lewis or McGill have led UNC in rushing offense in every game this season, and both were sidelined after the first series. UNC was left with Chad Scott and Madison Hedgecock attempting to carry the load for the running game. The results, a 1.8 yard per carry average and a total of 48 yards of rushing offense speak for themselves.
With the game plan in flames and facing a tenacious Utah defense on its home field, the UNC offense sputtered and stalled the rest of the evening. By the time Darian Durant went out with a sprained elbow in the third quarter, the offense was already on life support.
When the "rushing attack" of the Tar Heels became an oxymoron after the first series, all the Utes had to do was to sit back and force the UNC quarterbacks to throw into coverage. Often the UNC quarterback would wind up throwing the ball away. The Utes weren't particularly effective in pressuring either Durant or Matt Baker, who subbed for Durant after his injury. They recorded only one sack and no quarterback hurries all evening, but they made throwing into their secondary a game of "blind man's bluff" for the UNC quarterbacks.
As much praise as Gary Tranquill received from some quarters after the win over North Carolina State, he has received an equal or greater amount of criticism for the play-calling at Utah. The effect on the game plan of the injuries to Lewis and McGill, along with the suspension of UNC's leader in receiving yards, somehow gets tossed aside.
Special Teams and Turnover Margin
Connor Barth certainly enjoyed the effect of the thinner air at high altitudes, as he sailed kickoffs easily into the Utah end zone all evening. Coverage teams rate at least a B+, as Utah did not reel off any long returns on punts. Mike Mason had several nice returns, averaging 34.3 yards per return.
However, the blocked punt for a safety adds to the litany of special team snafus that have plagued the Tar Heels this season.
Though the turnover battle ended at 2-2, it wasn't quite a wash for the Tar Heels in terms of production. The fumble by Hedgecock in the first quarter was a huge momentum shift for the Utes. One Utah turnover on their side of the field ended with zero points for the Heels.
The Tar Heels have a bye week, and need one desperately. Not only will it provide some time to get some of the UNC walking wounded back on the field, but being able to put some time between this embarrassing loss and Miami can't help but be a positive.