As North Carolina fans once again had raised their hopes for the beginning of the college football season to a fever pitch, the Tar Heels proved they weren’t ready.
The only opener the Tar Heels have managed to win over a Division I opponent this millennium was a 30-9 victory over Tulsa in 2000, with former coach Carl Torbush at the helm.
“I’m really disappointed in the way we played, and the way we coached,” John Bunting said. “We need to go back and get this thing fixed. This is not the way to get things started.
“I was real excited about how our crowd was. I can’t tell you how bad this hurts.”
The preseason concern was not whether the UNC defense would improve but rather by how much, while worries were focused on an offense that was starting a new quarterback along with several new receivers.
Carolina held Heisman Trophy candidate Brian Leonard to just 25 yards on six carries and four receptions for 20 yards. But Scarlet Knights’ tailback Ray Rice ran roughshod over the Tar Heels for 205 yards and three touchdowns.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said, “Without a doubt, North Carolina dedicated its resources to take Brian Leonard out of the game.”
Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel completed 14-of-20 passes for 145 yards, but completed only one pass as long as 20 yards. However, unlike Carolina junior Joe Dailey, he didn’t throw an interception.
Dailey, who led Carolina's fourth quarter comeback, in which the Tar Heels came within 29 yards of scoring a game-winning touchdown, was 24-of-36 for 234 yards. But he also threw two interceptions – his last to Rutgers’ cornerback Manny Collins, which ended UNC’s final drive.
After the game, Dailey took his decisive miscue hard.
“It was just an awful throw,” Dailey said. “I feel like I let down the state of North Carolina as well as the program. I’m going to do everything that I can to fix those problems.”
Trailing 21-10 following Rice’s 10-yard TD run with 3:50 to play in the third quarter, UNC mounted a 14-play, 74-yard fourth quarter drive down to the Rutgers 1. But on 4th-and-goal, Ronnie McGill got stacked up at the line and eventually fumbled. Backup defensive end Will Beckford picked up the ball and rumbled 14 yards before being stopped from behind by Jesse Holley.
On the previous play, Barrington Edwards appeared to have scored from two yards out. The play was originally called a touchdown, but Rutgers challenged the call and it was overturned.
“I did not get an explanation on that and I was getting ready to challenge,” Bunting said. “All I know is they said the play on the field stands. That’s all I know.”
On the bright side for Carolina fans, there will likely be no more talk of UNC receivers without college receptions. Brooks Foster caught 11 passes for 120 yards.
“I felt like I had a whole lot to prove,” Foster said. “I knew I had confidence in myself. I just wanted the ball.”
And true freshman Hakeem Nicks hauled in seven receptions for 63 yards and a score. His two-yard circus catch on a fade route pulled the Tar Heels within five points with 5:09 to play in the game.
The Tar Heels (0-1) host No. 17 Virginia Tech next Saturday at noon in a game to be nationally televised by ESPN.
“The team that steamrolled us in the second half last year is coming to town,” Bunting said. “We’re going to see what our defense is all about.”