But the Heels still have plenty of work ahead to become a quality football team, as former coach Mack Brown's Longhorns clearly exposed.
Here is a look at the good and the bad of UNC's second loss in three games:
Jacque Lewis – For the game, Lewis had 84 yards on 20 carries. Through the first three quarters, he had 81 yards on 19 attempts. He likely separated himself from the pack and should be UNC's starting tailback – barring injury – for the rest of the season. He ran with exceptional balance, broke tackles, and turned a loss or no gain into three-plus yards on three occasions. He hits holes hard and can deliver a blow to potential tacklers.
Offensive line – The line did a fine job opening up holes for Lewis and maintaining blocks on Darian Durant's delayed QB draws. The pass protection wasn't too bad, considering the circumstances. The unit is very young and has plenty of room to grow, but also has big time potential. This is Carolina's best line since 1993.
Special teams – There was nothing great about UNC's special teams, but there was nothing awful – other than Michael Waddell's punt blunder – either. Texas' Nathan Vasher almost busted one, but was tripped up by a Tar Heel. Dan Orner's missed 49-yard field goal attempt is tolerable, especially after last week.
Durant's legs – Durant has improved running the ball from last year. He is quicker and last night did an excellent job luring a pass rush before taking off. This gave him some huge openings between the line and the secondary. The fakes also forced the DBs to play cover, also giving him some extra space. He ran for 74 yards on 12 attempts, and his 27-yard TD run was the longest of his career. He also had a huge 25-yard run on the drive that led to Jason Brown's fumble recovery for a score.
Grit, fight/Bunting, staff – The Heels could have mailed it in many times, but didn't. Credit Bunting, his staff, and especially the players for not quitting. There are two things this program clearly has that was missing for years: They are tough-minded with tremendous grit (never quit), and have a solid offensive line.
Fans – The fans were terrific. They were there early (for UNC fans), made a lot of noise and most stayed to support the team well into the fourth quarter.
D-line at times – Okay, Texas gained 271 yards on the ground – 208 by Cedric Benson – but the Tar Heels defensive front made some impressive stops, and even got in on some gang-tackling. They forced Texas into some long third-down situations. Despite the overall numbers and the clear need for improvement, it's fair to say that the line is better than originally expected.
Early 4th quarter – When UNC scored to make the score 31-21 early in the fourth quarter, Carolina was ahead of Texas by eight first downs and trailed by just nine total yards (346-337) despite the missed opportunities (missed FG, and two interceptions in the end zone). All things considered, not bad.
Mack Brown, etc. – Brown was gracious in victory. In fact, his players hoisted him on their shoulders after the game but he quickly yelled at them to put him down, that he didn't want to show up UNC like that. Say what you want about him, but he treated Carolina with tremendous class this week. It's time for UNC fans to let it go and move on.
Run defense – As noted in the Good, there were some positives against possibly the top tailback in the nation, but Carolina did allow too many big runs by Benson. He had 14 carries of five or more yards, including runs of 18, 9, 9, 9, 17, 8, 8, 11, 39, and 17 yards. It wasn't just the line, the linebackers rarely excelled and the DBs didn't provide enough quality run support.
Tackling – As coach John Bunting noted to the media, UNC did not tackle well. There were so many instances when Texas would turn would-be stops into large gains because the Heels didn't tackle well. Malcolm Stewart does a solid job getting to ball carriers, but he just doesn't wrap them up consistently well. Doug Justice also had occasions where he made excellent initial contact but couldn't bring down Benson. The DBs had some trouble with receivers as well. It doesn't appear to be a tenacity issue as much as it is strength and staying with it (i.e. experience). With the staff UNC has, and the physical program led by Jeff Connors, they will only improve in this area.
Linebackers – The experts said the linebackers were supposed to be the team's weakest link. They were right. The unit lacks quickness and speed and has a tough time bringing down runners. They don't fight blocks very well and remain the team's chief liability. They play hard and should improve, but right now put too much pressure on the front line and DBs to over perform.
Michael Waddell – Waddell is a fine cornerback and may have a professional future, but he has had a couple of tough games over the last two weeks. Waddell struggled against Texas' 6-foot-4 All-American wide receiver Roy Williams, who caught five passes for 136 yards and two TDs. Waddell also inadvertently touched a punt after it bounced, keeping the ball alive, which Texas fell on at UNC's 19-yard-line. However, the Longhorns didn't score (missed field goal).
Use of tight ends – After having success using the tight ends in the win at Syracuse, the Heels didn't throw anything their way while Durant was in the game. Perhaps they intended to and quality coverage coupled with a pass rush forced Durant to scrap that idea. But the bottom line is that Zach Hilton (6-foot-7, 276 pounds) and Bobby Blizzard (6-foot-3, 276) are excellent targets capable of catching and running some. They should be used every week.
Durant's passing – Durant throws a nice sharp ball over the middle. He has zip on it and is usually on target. His wide tosses, however, need tremendous work. He struggles leading his receiver and the ball often floats and lacks zip. He underthrows, overthrows (not as often) and sometimes is just way off the mark. He also struggles throwing when rolling out or escaping the rush, and makes questionable decisions on anything not over the middle. He threw into tight coverage on both interceptions Saturday. Perhaps with added experience he will read the safeties coming over, but as for now, the staff should stick to some more basic stuff, and utilize his strengths. (See tight ends!!!)
Jawarski Pollock – Pollock is an exceptional talent and will eventually be a consistently fine receiver for the Tar Heels, but on two occasions it appeared that he heard the footsteps of Longhorns on passes over the middle, and both times dropped the ball. Once it would have gone for a crucial first down, and would have provided UNC's defense a bit more needed rest in the first quarter. This will change in time.
Forcing turnovers – Carolina's cornerbacks have NOT picked off a pass dating back to the start of last season, a span of 15 regular season games. As talented as Waddell is, and as highly as Bunting speaks of Kevin Knight and the others who have played the position, not once in the Bunting era have any of them snared one pass. Players must first cover the receiver, but Waddell and Knight – both seniors – should at least by now know when to go for the ball. With UNC's difficulties hanging on to the ball, and some of the issues its defense has, gaining an advantage in the take-away department would balance out some of the team's deficiencies.
Fans – Some people get annoyed when a player or issue ends up in both the good and the bad, but in this case, it makes sense. There were a lot of fans that chose to leave at halftime. The score was just 24-7 and had Orner nailed the missed FG it would have been 24-10. The Heels were within striking distance but these fans, which matched a stereotype rivals' fans charge, decided it wasn't worth sticking around to see, and to support the team. This only goes to a few, but part of the culture that Bunting wants to change is the fans' approach to not just big games, but all games. This is such an example.
Carolina has a week off before hosting Georgia Tech Among the Pines on Sept. 28. The Heels need to notch a victory, but it will be tough against the experienced and talented Yellow Jackets. The game time has not yet been determined.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.