“That is not the way to get started,” head coach John Bunting said. A sentiment echoed by Tar Heels fans everywhere, as North Carolina fell 21-16 at home to Rutgers.
What Went Wrong
Topic number one among observers of the opening stanza of the 2006 UNC football season is the porous run defense of the Tar Heels. The Tar Heel defensive line, thought to be a strength this season, was shredded early and often by the Scarlet Knights.
“It will be a long, long season if we don’t play better run defense that that,” Bunting said. It is difficult to understand why the rush defense was so poor, despite attempts by several Tar Heels players and Bunting to explain what went wrong. The simpler answer is that the defensive line may just not be as good as anticipated. They weren’t on Saturday.
The two interceptions thrown by quarterback Joe Dailey marred an otherwise outstanding first outing by the Nebraska transfer. One interception was clearly just a poor throw, while the intended target of the other pick thrown by Dailey, Barrington Edwards, could have arguably shared in the blame for that turnover.
The most disheartening moment came when the Tar Heels failed to get in the end zone at the start of the fourth quarter, turning the ball over and getting zero points after a 14-play, 74 yard drive. Initially ruled a touchdown by tail back Barrington Edwards, the official’s reversal and subsequent McGill fumble sucked the oxygen out of Kenan Stadium.
Jacoby Watkins also had an opportunity to change the complexion of the game in the first quarter. Watkins was in man coverage, read the play perfectly, timed his break on the ball precisely, got his hands on the ball – but couldn’t bring it in. There was nothing but green grass in front of Watkins, and an interception returned for a touchdown at that point in the game might have made a major difference in how the game played out.
What went Right
Most Tar Heels would be surprised to learn that UNC out-gained Rutgers in total yards, had more first downs, and fielded a brand new starting quarterback who completed 67% of his passes. It is less than a consolation prize to “win” such stats, but there were positive developments on display for the Tar Heels this Saturday, despite the loss.
The special teams were solid all day long, beginning with an “NFL moment” by reserve receiver Dirk Ingram, cutting the legs from under Rutger’s return man Willie Foster on the very first play of the season, to Connor Barth’s 47-yard field goal, to Brandon Tate’s gutty returns in the second half to give the Tar Heels a fighting chance. The return teams were solid last year, but against Rutgers the coverage teams were also solid, unlike last season.
Despite the abuse the defense has and will endure for their performance on Saturday, they did hold Rutgers scoreless in the fourth quarter, also turning their first three-and-out of the day to give the Heels the ball, time on the clock, and a chance to win the game.
As for individuals, Ronnie McGill turned in a typical performance, including an amazing 48-yard run. Hilee Taylor brought good pressure on the few snaps Rutgers chose to throw the ball. Barrington Edwards helped to convert a couple of third-and-ten situations (and UNC converted eight of thirteen third downs, as well as two of three red zone chances). Hakeem Nicks got his career off to a great start with seven catches for 63 yards.
But it was Brooks Foster and Joe Dailey that stole the show, if that can be done in such a disappointing loss. Foster, who did not catch a pass last year, reeled in 11 catches for 120 yards on the day, ran great routes, and also picked up good yardage after the catch. Dailey, though he’ll be remembered more for his two picks, completed 24 of 36 attempts for 234 yards. On the final UNC scoring drive of 89 yards, Dailey and Foster hooked up six times for 54 yards with the Rutgers defense knowing that the Tar Heels had little choice but to throw the ball. Dailey also showed his prowess running the ball, rushing eight times for 38 yards, including a touchdown.
North Carolina simply cannot give up 200-plus yards of rushing against anyone and win football games, and particularly not against a solid defensive team like the Virginia Tech Hokies. The Tar Heels have been known to follow a bad loss with a dramatic win, but unless their run defense improves dramatically, get ready to discuss another loss – perhaps an ugly loss.