Most UNC fans were hopeful that this Tar Heel teams would be improved, but with one of the nation's most difficult schedules many of those fans accepted the fact that "improvement" might not equal "wins." Saturday, that outlook may have changed.
The Tar Heels were dealt a poor hand when the ACC scheduled their opener on the road against Georgia Tech after a bye week to start the season. A UNC loss was predictable, but coming out of that game there was a noticeable difference in the Tar Heel defense.
They were aggressive. They were physical. They hit hard.
While they didn't force any turnovers in the opener, those changes are now paying dividends. The Tar Heels knocked the ball loose from N.C. State ball carriers three times last week and recovered two fumbles. This week, the defense forced the Utes to put the ball on the ground four times, and recovered each fumble. In all of 2004, the Tar Heels only recovered seven fumbles in twelve contests.
Through four games in 2005, the Tar Heels have already matched last year's fumble recovery total.
How do you explain the difference? "They have grown up," Tar Heel quarterback Matt Baker said following the game, "There are not any new players on that defense. The defensive line has grown up. I've said in the past that if you can have a quality defensive line and have depth, you are going to be a good defense."
Not a bad assessment from the fifth-year senior. The Tar Heel defense stays fresher through rotation on the defensive line, they have more speed at the linebacker positions, and their experience allows them not to have to "think" as much as in past years. Now, they can react.
"We were going to play our game, do things right, and get turnovers. We want to be known as an aggressive, smart, fast, defense," Tar Heel linebacker Larry Edwards said.
While the Tar Heel defense is justifiably proud of their performance, there is still work to be done. When Jacoby Watkins became ill and left the game, the Utes worked successfully on his replacement, Quinton Person, with their big wide receiver John Madsen.
To his credit, Person did not allow Madsen to break a big play after a catch. The Utes, however, moved the chains with first down catch after first down catch. Person had the last laugh, however, as he broke up a pass on a critical third-down attempt in the latter part of the third quarter.
As well as the defense played on Saturday, it is hard not to get the feeling that UNC's best defensive performance still lays in front of them. As they build on their confidence with performances like Saturday's, this defense has a chance to be very good.
Like a cranky vintage automobile, there always seems to be one or more parts of the UNC offense that aren't functioning. The running game, except for the N.C. State contest, was been lackluster-to-poor through four games. The offensive line has had its moments, but not enough of them. The wide receivers have dropped passes, and on Saturday Matt Baker was off the mark more often than he was on it.
Just to keep the record straight, Matt Baker plays with a lot of heart, toughness, and poise. When you come into a season with a first-time starter, you won't know what you have until the games begin. Baker stepped into that role ready to play.
Saturday, however, with his wide receivers seemingly prepared to shake off the case of "dropitis" they have had in recent games, he underthrew, overthrew, and just plain missed seeing wide open receivers. Baker didn't have a great game on Saturday. The Tar Heels still got 267 yards out of their passing game, and in the end, it was enough.
Quarterbacks, even the best of them, have bad days. But the lack of any consistent running game has to be an ongoing major concern for the Tar Heels. Barrington Edwards, the putative UNC starter, only managed an anemic 1.9 yards per carry on Saturday. The lack of a running game forces UNC to rely too much on the arm of Baker and the hands of their receivers, and the passing attack has yet to be as efficient as it needs to be.
The offense wasn't without its bright spots, and one that seems to have escaped much notice elsewhere is the play of tight end Jon Hamlett. For all of UNC's talent in their receiver corps, Hamlett is becoming a real threat at tight end. His four catches on Saturday tied Mike Mason for the most receptions and his 61 yards receiving was second on the team.
The brightest spot of all is that the Tar Heel offense scored enough points to win the game, with an assist from the special teams. But to prevail in some of the contests that loom ahead the offense is going to have to develop a rhythm and consistency that has been lacking thus far in 2005.
Brandon Tate has to have exceeded the wildest expectations of both the staff and the Tar Heel fans. He has been a threat to score every time he receives a kick, and on the opening kickoff Saturday he carried through on that threat, delivering a solid body blow to the Utes.
David Woolridge may have had his best game as a punter. Not only were his kicks long (including one critical 48-yarder), his hang time was such that the Utes were forced to fair catch most of his punts.
That's on the positive side: on the negative side is that Connor Barth, again, missed two field goals. Those things are difficult to sort out, and the hope is that they are fluke misses. Fortunately, the missed field goals haven't yet affected the outcome of games. If the misses continue the odds are that they could prove more costly.
The kickoff coverage team continues to perform poorly, giving up over 25 yards per return. This area is certain to be a continued area of concern and focus in practice.
The Tar Heels are 2-2 and ahead of a lot of the media's expectations. This season has yielded some surprises so far and UNC fans may see more of them - if the offense begins to really click.
Starting next week against Louisville on the road, the Tar Heels face four consecutive games against opponents currently ranked in USAToday's Top 25 poll. UNC is 0-2 this season against teams currently ranked in that poll (Wisconsin – 14th, Georgia Tech – 23rd) – both were games in which the Tar Heels had a chance to win the game late. In both games, the offense could not close the deal.
The defense is playing well enough for UNC to upset some of those teams. To pull off those upsets, however, it will be up to the Tar Heel offense.