With a lot of new players in key positions, the Tar Heels began the season with a lot of question marks. While many questions remain, UNC fans can take a few observations away from the UNC opener, including the impact of those new key players.
It is no secret that defense has been the chief weakness for the UNC football program since Julius Peppers and several other Tar Heels took their skills to the NFL in 2001. Since that time, the Tar Heels have been near the bottom of the Division 1-A lists for total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, and passing defense.
This was to be the year when experience and depth reversed that trend. The UNC defenses in the past had two major issues, both related to the defensive line. First, they could not stop the run. Second, they could bring little pressure on opposing quarterbacks, allowing them four and five seconds to survey the field and find an open man.
The Tar Heels were more successful against the run – much more successful. During the last visit UNC paid to Atlanta, Tech’s talented tailback, P.J. Daniels, gouged UNC’s rush defense for 240 yards. On Saturday, Daniels totaled only 103 yards on 21 carries, getting 42 on one run. In the other twenty carries, Daniels managed just over three yards a carry.
“Their front seven were strong and physical, and they did a better job at stopping the run as the game went on, especially in the second half,” said Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey. After the past three seasons, that’s hardly a quote you would expect to see from an opposing coach after playing UNC.
The Tar Heels, however, have not made progress pressuring opposing quarterbacks. The Tar Heels still had no sacks on Saturday and too often Georgia Tech’s quarterback, Reggie Ball, had the opportunity to go to second and third option receivers.
Ball, connected with nine different receivers on Saturday, completing 28-of-45 attempts for 353 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Ball was as mature and poised as you would expect a quarterback to be in his 26th start. Tech features one the best receivers in the ACC, if not the nation, in Calvin Johnson. Johnson had six catches for 114 yards, but the “other” Tech receiver, Demarius Bilbo, bested the talented Johnson with eight catches for 131 yards.
A cynic might conclude that Georgia Tech simply abandoned the run because moving the ball through the air was just easier. The key word in that sentence is “easier.’ In the past three seasons, the Tar Heels often just had too many problems on defense. It still remains to be seen, but perhaps now they have fewer problems to fix.
A huge unknown loomed over the preseason; replacing quarterback Darian Durant. The Tar Heels entered this season with a fifth-year senior, Matt Baker, who had never started a game.
Baker rushed some throws, didn’t manage the clock perhaps as well as a more experienced quarterback may have, and threw three interceptions. He did, however, account for three touchdowns, two by air and one by land. He also had several passes dropped and still managed to throw for 280 yards, completing 18-of-39 passes, against a very good Georgia Tech defense.
Baker’s initial experience as a starting quarterback may have some Tar Heels breathing a little easier.
Baker showed toughness, a good arm, and solid leadership on the field. Bunting’s reference to “communication,” however, may have had an effect in a broader context with Baker and his receivers. The timing and speed on his throws is different than Durant’s, and the odds are that the inexplicable dropped passes may decrease as that non-verbal “communication” improves.
Communication, again of the non-verbal kind, might help explain the lackluster running game. The offensive line is experienced, but the new tailbacks often decided to take their own path instead of following their blocking. Both Barrington Edwards and James “Cooter” Arnold showed some flashes of ability, but the Tar Heels stat line of 61 yards on 21 attempts was disappointing for a team that likes to run “downhill.” Georgia Tech, it should be noted, may be as stout against the run as any team UNC faces this season.
The Tar Heel receivers, thought to be one of the strengths of the 2005 offense, had a mixed day. There were too many dropped passes, but there were also some remarkable performances, such as Derrele Mitchell’s 87-yard touchdown reception, with most of those yards gained after the catch.
The Tar Heels have to get more out of the running game, and “communication” has to improve, but if they can get just a few problems corrected, there is no reason why they can’t again field an efficient and effective offense.
The Tar Heels did a good job returning punts and covering kicks. On four punts, they averaged nearly 12 yards a punt return, while limiting Tech to a little over four yards per return. Kickoff coverage wasn’t quite as effective, as the Heels gave up 24 yards per return, but they averaged 23 per kickoff return themselves.
Connor Barth didn’t attempt a field goal, but was solid on kickoffs. David Woolridge seems to be an improved punter with better hang time without sacrificing distance.
There were no serious miscues for either Tech or UNC on special teams.
After a loss it is sometimes easy to forget that there were two teams on the field, both of whom had a role in the outcome. The Tar Heels opened their season on the road against a top 20 team. Both teams had a lot of experience returning on defense, but Tech had a seasoned quarterback, experienced and talented receivers, and seasoned running backs. The Tar Heels had a solid offensive line and a good corps of receivers, but not much else to hang their hats on offensively. The Tar Heels coaches were seeing, for the first time, how those key players responded in a real game. The Yellow Jackets were favored by nearly two touchdowns, and the Tar Heels still had a chance to win this game in the final two minutes.
A loss is a loss, but as possible outcomes go, this was far from the worst that could have happened.