“We’ve got to get things figured out on offense so we can move the ball and score some points,” frustrated UNC head coach John Bunting said following the 14-5 loss. An obvious -- understated -- but entirely accurate description of the task ahead for the Tar Heels.
In two previous games against admittedly outmatched opponents, the Wisconsin offense rolled up over 60 points per game and nearly 500 yards per game in total offense. The Tar Heel defense, who might have fallen in previous years into that “outmatched” category, held the Badgers to 14 points and 304 yards.
Against a large and powerful Wisconsin offensive line, the Tar Heels netted four sacks, the most in any contest in recent memory. The defensive tackles, under the tutelage of Ken Browning, recorded sixteen tackles, three tackles-for-loss, and two sacks – the most productive outing for the interior line since the days of Ryan Sims and company.
The defense also stripped away the ball to force a fumble and held the Badgers to a respectable 35 percent third down conversion ratio. It has been a long uphill climb for the much maligned Tar Heel defense, but they have played their way into respectability thus far this season. And this defense could get better as their confidence grows.
The downside Saturday night for the defense was a season-ending injury to starting middle linebacker Doug Justice. Reserve Victor Worsley is now forced into the spotlight. Worsley has been something of an enigma since coming to UNC as a player the coaches felt had a tremendous upside. He played adequately in relief of Justice, notching six tackles, but now has to be ready to go every snap.
It would be easy to rip the offense for their performance Saturday night. The truth is that they did some things well, but fell flat in one major area – rushing. The fact that the Tar Heels have struggled in the running game is puzzling in some ways, predictable in others.
The anemic running game is puzzling because of the presence of a veteran and talented offensive line. Carefully assembled by Hal Hunter, the offensive line was thought to be one of the showpiece units of the Tar Heel offense. The lack of rushing yardage, at the same time, is also predictable because North Carolina lacked a running back with a single carry as a Tar Heel going into the season.
The Tar Heels were hopeful that LSU transfer Barrington Edwards and a group of untested running backs would thrive behind the veteran offensive line. After two games, that hope is quickly disappearing. The Tar Heels have managed less than 60 yards per game rushing.
The opposition the Tar Heels have faced has to be factored into the equation. Both Georgia Tech and Wisconsin feature defenses that are tough against the run. Even after adjusting expectations for the strength of the opposition, the running game has been a major disappointment thus far.
Penalties, lack of rhythm and consistency, dropped passes by wide receivers – all have contributed to the lack of offensive production by the Tar Heel offense. Quarterback Matt Baker has played – for the most part – better than expected, but he cannot carry this team offensively solely on the strength of his arm. One dimensional offenses typically do not excel in college football, and the lack of a ground game is the prime suspect in the lack of points generated by the UNC offense on Saturday night.
Special teams play was spotty at best. Particularly troubling was the failure to get off a field goal attempt because of a delay of game penalty. There was another costly mistake in the form of an unnecessary hit on a Wisconsin player on a punt return. There were simply too many unforced errors.
The kicking game, meanwhile, remains solid. Woolridge and Barth handle their duties well. The kickoff return team also performed well, averaging 24 yards per return. Brandon Tate shows potential as a punt returner, and it is only a matter of time before he breaks a big return.
North Carolina has dropped their first two decisions of the 2005 season and next week steps on the field at Carter-Finley stadium against a team that has waited a year to exact revenge for a controversial loss to the Tar Heels in 2004. If the Tar Heels are to revive their bowl hopes, they are going to have to find a running game against one of the stouter run defenses in the ACC.