“We felt it was time for us to win,” senior defensive end Tommy Davis said following the game. “We knew we were close the past two weeks. We knew we were close and we just had to finish. Today we finished.”
There is no shortage of illustrations of how far off the mark pregame analysis can be. Seldom, however, are the experts proven as wrong they were on Saturday. The conventional wisdom going into Saturday’s game was that NC State’s herd of talented running backs would run wild over UNC’s run defense.
At the end of the day, the Wolfpack had netted only 13 yards rushing. That is not a typo. On 28 carries, N.C. State’s hyped collection of five running backs managed 13 yards.
Of course, that’s net yards. The Pack actually rushed for 91 yards. Once you factor in the negative 74 yards lost as a result of the six sacks notched by the Tar Heels, and a tackle for loss for 4 yards, you reach the bottom line of 13 net yards. Yes, you read that line correctly. Six sacks. The Tar Heels, through three games, already have half of the sack total they recorded in all twelve games in 2004.
It is hard to say which is the most impressive, the run defense or the six sacks, but they both lead to the same place – the defensive line. Some of the sacks did come as a result of excellent coverage in the secondary. On at least a couple of occasions, NCSU’s quarterback, Jay Davis, had the time to throw the ball; he just didn’t have an open receiver to throw it to. On occasion, a blitzing linebacker brought down Davis.
But the Tar Heel defensive line had the NC State offensive line visibly jumpy. You could actually see the Pack offensive line panic at times. The Tar Heels continue to liberally substitute players on the defensive front with no visible drop off in play. This is the type of defensive line the Tar Heels, and their fans, have been longing for since 2001.
It is often easy to point to a single player and acknowledge their accomplishments. If pressed to make that call, I’d have to name senior Tommy Davis. Not only his two sacks and determined play all afternoon deserve mention, but Davis’ leadership is noticeable on the field.
But while there are players who may emerge as All-ACC players during their careers, this Tar Heel defense is mostly made up of solid, determined players who are well-coached and disciplined. The “No Name” Tar Heel defense held the Pack to 270 yards of total offense.
Through three games, it is too soon to tell if this UNC football team has turned the corner, but it is pretty clear the UNC defense has. They are physical, aggressive, and play hard every down. Against three teams considered to be quality offensive football teams, the UNC defense has played solid defense every game thus far.
Against the Wolfpack, make that “outstanding” defense.
As for UNC’s running game versus NC State, none of the prognosticators got that one right either. The Tar Heels had been ineffective running the ball in their two prior games, and against NCSU’s vaunted defense, it was easy to predict that North Carolina would be stopped cold on the ground.
That didn’t happen. North Carolina didn’t dominate in the running game, but they got more out of their running game than anyone expected, and it kept them in the game during the first half. Barrington Edwards, James “Cooter” Arnold and Justin Warren gave North Carolina enough on the ground, 144 yards net, to prevent the offense from being one dimensional.
As Matt Baker acknowledged after the game, the offensive line seemed to fare better in run-blocking than pass protection in the first half. In the second half, offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill took a page out of Mark Trestman’s book, his opposite number on the Pack team who favor’s the West Coast offense. Tranquill called some quick pass plays that hit receivers in stride and allowed them to make yards after the catch. That strategy seemed to put Baker into a rhythm, something that had been a missing ingredient in previous games.
The receivers had some drops in the first half, but also seemed to take to the short passing game in the second half. Mike Mason, Jarwarski Pollock, and Jesse Holley all had impressive runs after catching the ball in stride.
More impressive than all of the above was the poise the offense demonstrated after going down 24-14 early in the second half. There was no panic, and every reason to expect that they might. The crowd was into the game, the Pack had the momentum, and it looked as though the double-digit NC State win prediction might hold up. The Tar Heels seized the momentum back and never relinquished it on their way to the win.
A lot of that credit has to go to Matt Baker himself. He never seems to get down, no matter how often he goes down, which again on Saturday, was a lot. He had to know that he had a great big target on his back; part of the Wolfpack strategy going in had to be to try and make UNC play with their No. 2 quarterback.
Through three games, this UNC offense has not played as well offensively as they will likely play at some point this season. Saturday had to be a big confidence boost for Baker and his offensive team mates. The running backs took a step forward, as well as the receivers.
Last week I described this area as a “mixed bag,” and it is more of the same this week. Snapping the ball over the head of the punter and missing two field goals are concerns, but those things, inexplicably, happen. Kickoff coverage teams continue to be a concern and seem to be more of an ongoing problem. The Tar Heels are yielding far too much yardage in that area of special teams.
"We did not play very well on special teams, and if you look at it, it could have cost us the football game,'' head coach John Bunting said. “We've got to really work at that this week.
"Kickoff coverage is like defending the run; you've got to fit the play. We did not have proper fits. When we discussed it on the sideline, we were told one thing, and when we watched it on the tape, it was something else."
Brandon Tate continues to impress as a returner. Sort of makes you wonder what he will be like as a receiver, doesn’t it? End around, anyone?
The partially blocked punt and resulting touchdown, however, gets very close to redeeming the special teams for this week. That play was huge, and gave UNC the life it needed to make the win possible.
With the defense playing the way they have through three games, how successful this season ultimately becomes is going to largely be a function of how much, and how soon, the Tar Heel offense begins to click.
If that happens, Carolina may make the experts look worse than they did on Saturday.