“There’s not much to say,” head coach John Bunting said following the game. We were clearly outplayed, ‘outpersonnelled’ and out-coached. You name it.”
Going into the game, Louisville was known to have a high-flying offense, averaging over 40 points a game and over 500 yards per game of total offense. The hope was that the Tar Heel defense had improved enough over prior seasons to continue the streak of competitive performances.
It turned out to be a forlorn hope. Louisville did virtually anything it wanted to do against the Tar Heels offensively. While two of Louisville’s scores came on fumble returns, and they fell short of their offensive average by 50 yards, the defense simply could not contain the Cardinals’ offense.
Make no mistake; the Cardinals are a very talented team, led by a head coach who is considered one of the best offensive coaches in the game, Bobby Petrino. Brian Brohm was nearly flawless, connecting on 17-of-22 passes for 304 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Tar Heels sacked Brohm only once, and were seldom able to pressure him.
UNC was effective against the Cardinal’s primary rushing threat, Michael Bush, holding him to less than three yards per carry. Louisville, however, may have simply taken what the Tar Heel defense gave it, and that was yards through the air. That has to be the primary concern for the Carolina defense the remainder of this season.
While the front seven has made much progress this season, the secondary has become the unit under suspicion. With their performance on Saturday, North Carolina dropped to 96th in the nation in pass efficiency defense; only Duke ranks lower in the ACC in that category.
In past seasons, it has been the lack of any defensive pressure from the front seven that has taken the brunt of the criticism for their opponent’s success through the air. While the Tar Heels didn’t do as well pressuring Brohm has they have other quarterbacks this year, the secondary also failed to make plays or play solid coverage. Through the rest of this season, UNC’s ACC opponents will undoubtedly take note of that fact and attempt to exploit it.
The offense did their part in contributing to Louisville’s 69 points. Two fumbles resulted in touchdowns for Louisville. Even if those touchdowns had not occurred, no one would have expected the UNC offense to score enough points to have made the game close given the points yielded by the defense. To that extent, they obtain some absolution for this defeat.
The return of Ronnie McGill did not yield the type of results that Tar Heel fans hoped for. McGill had just 26 yards on 12 carries, but none of the other Carolina tailbacks fared much better, because most of the 62 yards gained by James “Cooter” Arnold on 11 carries came after Louisville already had 62 points on the board and were substituting liberally.
Matt Baker had the type of game UNC fans have come to expect, in fact, Baker had his best game this season in terms of accuracy, throwing for 19 completions in 27 attempts and 224 yards. But Baker has yet to play a game without throwing at least one interception.
The Tar Heel running game has yet to show signs that it will become an effective part of the offense. Though Matt Baker perhaps has exceeded expectations, the Tar Heels won’t win many games if they continue to rely as much on the passing game as they have thus far this season.
With an offensive line often playing four seniors, it is difficult to explain or understand why the UNC running game hasn’t gotten any traction this season. Youthful running backs were suspected to be part of the equation in prior games, but McGill’s lack of success on the ground on Saturday now make the offensive line the prime suspect. Baker is getting hit or sacked far too often, and lackluster rushing totals remain the norm for this offense.
Connor Barth again missed a field goal on Saturday, this one from 44 yards. Much was expected of Barth coming into the season and it now appears he is in a serious slump in terms of confidence. Though it obviously had no effect on the outcome of the game Saturday, it would not take a prophet to predict that the Tar Heels could easily come out on the short end of the scoreboard this season because of a missed field goal.
Louisville was the first team to really hold Brandon Tate in check on returns, though Tate did have one 36-yard return. It is difficult to assess the punt return team, because Louisville punted only once. Another stat of little meaning is that the kickoff coverage team did not give up a large return – the Tar Heels did not kick off often.
It is hard to say how much of a talent gap there is between Louisville and UNC, but on Saturday that gap seemed as wide as between a Division I-A team and a typical Division I-AA team. One way to analyze this game is to chalk it up to the poorest performance to date by the Tar Heels against the best team it has played to date.
The Tar Heels enter a bye week obviously licking their wounds. The similarity between this season and last season is stark. The Tar Heels were soundly beaten on the road last year against Utah, then fashioned its most dramatic win of the year against Miami after a bye week.
Though Tar Heel fans will obviously be hoping for a similar result when the Virginia Cavaliers come to Kenan Stadium in two weeks, there are chronic and identifiable weaknesses in this team that must get corrected if UNC is to prevail over the Cavaliers.