Turning Around the Turnover Margin
The Tar Heels have been on the wrong end of the turnover margin in their close losses this season. Different turnover margin result, different game result.
“The turnovers are the number one most indicative statistic that determines whether you win or lose football games,” Davis said following the game.
The Tar Heels blocked a punt and intercepted two Kyle Wright passes in the first half. The Tar Heels fumbled the ball on their first possession of the second half, leading to a Hurricane touchdown to bring them back into the game, 27-13, but the ‘Canes missed the extra point attempt. Quan Sturdivant’s fourth-quarter interception and Charles Brown’s pick with 6:15 left in the game, the Tar Heels’ third and fourth of the game, were key plays in the UNC victory.
For Once, a Fast Start
The Tar Heels have struggled out of the gate several times this season – not so on Saturday. Offensively, defensively and on special teams UNC got off to a hot start. On their second possession of the game, the Tar Heels began to establish a solid ground game with hard running by Anthony Elzy, set up by pulling linemen including Aaron Stahl, Lowell Dyer, and Garrett Reynolds.
“It was a great feeling just to hand the ball off and watch them run it,” Tar Heel quarterback T.J. Yates said.
On Anthony Elzy’s touchdown run, Reynolds was out in front plowing the row, making the key block to spring Elzy. Along with stellar defensive effort and a special teams turnover, the Heels built a 20-point lead with 11:25 left in the first half.
Defensively, the Tar Heels stuffed the running game of Miami early on, with the Hurricanes actually recording negative yardage – minus six yards rushing – in the first quarter. The inability of the Hurricanes to run the ball early in the game contributed to the Tar Heel’s fast start.
“We talked this week about we wanted to start fast,” head coach Butch Davis said. “I don’t think you could have scripted clearly a better way to start.”
Working With a Lead
The Tar Heels found themselves in the unusual position of attempting to play with a lead – 27-0 at halftime – and struggled. Miami scored three touchdowns in the third quarter, one a 97-yard bomb to Darnell Jenkins (longest completion ever in Kenan Stadium), and seized the momentum. A three-and-out on the ensuing Tar Heel possession had them reeling.
“They didn’t crack under the pressure,” Davis said. “They knew what we had to as far as execution.”
The Tar Heels got a defensive stop on the next Miami possession – a crucial defensive stop that was one of the keys to the win. That defensive stand stopped the bleeding on the scoreboard for the Tar Heels and stalled Miami’s momentum.
Yates said that Davis’s motivation on the sideline was key, moving among the players with the admonition, “We’ve got to fight through adversity.”
The Tar Heels got the stop when Hilee Taylor sacked Miami quarterback Kyle Wright for a 13-yard loss, what Taylor calls “the second biggest play” of his career. “As a defensive player, you always want to score with the ball, so the play I had as a freshman was the biggest, but this was the second biggest,” Taylor said.
“That one play at that given moment was clearly huge,” Davis said.
The next Tar Heel drive, fueled by a huge 49-yard reception by Tate (during which he gained about half that yardage running without one shoe), resulted in Connor Barth’s third field goal of the game and giving the Tar Heels a 10-point margin.
“Special” Special Teams Play
The blocked punt in the second quarter was huge. Jonathon Smith’s bone-jarring hit on a punt return by Graig Cooper early in the game set the tone for a number of hard hits by the Tar Heels on Saturday - including another nice stop by Quinton Person on the kickoff following Brandon Tate’s 54-yard romp to put the Heels up 27-0. The Tar Heel defense seemed to feed off the hard hits made on special teams, particularly early in the game.
The kicking game was also a key to the game. Connor Barth’s four field goals (extending his UNC -record consecutive field goals made streak to 19). He also booted two touchback kicks in the second half.
Elzy Takes Off Fast, Slows Up
Abandoning the “running back by committee” approach early on, Anthony Elzy got every carry until under four minutes to go in the first half. Elzy had 80 yards rushing in the first quarter alone. He also had a twenty-yard pass reception to keep the second Tar Heel drive of the second half alive and though the drive stalled at that point. Although he got off to a hot start - his first ten carries went for 80 yards - his next 12 carries only netted 8 yards.
Davis indicated that after the game, that the “running back by committee” approach is still in effect, and likely will remain that way.
Tate Finds Yet Another Way
Kickoff returns, punt returns, receiving touchdowns – and now a rushing touchdown for Brandon Tate, UNC’s all-purpose scorer. Tate’s first half 54-yard reverse was a thing of beauty. Tate slowed up long enough on the end of the run to let fellow wide receiver Hakeem Nicks get out in front to interfere with one would-be tackler, then sealing another tackler with a block – Nicks gets a big assist on that touchdown.
Head coach Butch Davis said the reverse was a great play call by offensive coordinator John Shoop, something they thought would work against Miami’s over-pursuit of the ball, but that, “The guy who make that play work was Hakeem Nicks (blocking downfield).”
A blocked punt, an interception that he first tipped, then caught, four tackles, including a tackle for loss – quite a game for true freshman Quan Sturdivant. “I just try to get out there and make plays,” Sturdivant said. As for his recent success on the field, Sturdivant says, “At first I was lost out there, now things are slowing down for me.”
From One South Florida School to Another
After the game, T.J. Yates indicated that the staff told the players, “This is our beginning.”
That beginning might have actually come following the loss to South Florida. Following that game, Coach Davis’s post-game speech to the Tar Heels apparently made a dramatic impression. That speech questioned the desire of the Tar Heels to put in the extra effort they needed to turn the corner.
T.J. Yates, Quan Sturdivant, and Hilee Taylor all pointed to that speech for inspiring the Tar Heels to get better. “We’ve had two amazing weeks of practice,” Yates said.
“Practice (the past two weeks) has been physical,” Taylor said. “Guys are watching film more, getting into their playbooks more.”
“Preparation gives you the best chance to win and I think our team is learning week-by-week, how important it is to prepare well in practice Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, watching film,” Davis said.