Connecticut’s stat line was far more impressive than North Carolina’s in almost every category – the 23rd-ranked Huskies had more first downs (23 to 13), more rushing yards (168 to 146), more passing yards (210 to 117), ran more offensive plays (84 to 49), and held the ball much longer (36:22 to 23:38). But a lighting failure, three block punts by the same player, and three interceptions by three different defenders made this game anything but ordinary – and helped the Tar Heels prevail, 38-12, in Kenan Stadium.
ONE-MAN BLOCK PARTY
Bruce Carter is on fire as a punt blocker. In the first half, he got a piece of three punts, one of which resulted in a touchdown when Matt Merletti covered the ball in the end zone. He’s actually blocked four punts in a row, counting the last punt attempted by Miami a week ago.
“They had a brand new personal protector; the guy who sits directly behind the snapper,” head coach Butch Davis explained. “We felt like if we could confuse him a bit with some of the alignments we could get some pressure off the edge. And it just worked, there wasn’t anything spectacular by scheme other than guys giving great effort and getting off the ball. Certainly Bruce made some great plays.”
For Carter himself, it was a lot simpler than that. “For me, I just go hard as I can,” Carter said. “In practice, Coach Davis just keeps telling us to keep going, keep going, you never know who is going to block it, so for me, I just go as hard as I can. … What’s funny is that I went in the same spot all three times.”
Those blocks went a long way toward explaining the UNC win in spite of an otherwise lopsided stat sheet.
Bruce Carter made a lot of fans tonight, including Mark Paschal who walked into the postgame interview room wearing Carter’s discarded jersey. “Bruce and I are good buddies so I figured I’d snag it up and pretend I was Bruce Carter for a little bit,” Paschal said. “I can’t say enough about “54” tonight. If they made Bruce Carter pajamas I would wear them. I tell you what, he played his butt off tonight.”
The Tar Heels had only 11 interceptions in all of 2007 – after tonight’s game, the Heels have 12 in 2008, and may lead the nation in picks when the dust settles from this weekend. Eight different UNC defenders have an inception. Charles Brown, who plays in nickel situations, is the non-starter who has a pick this year. The three takeaways, against one giveaway, pushed North Carolina’s turnover margin to +1.2 per game.
What’s different? According to Trimane Goddard, not much. “A lot of it is that guys are just older and recognizing route concepts,” Goddard said. “(We are) identifying the routes and everything, so it helps them on their reads, and breaking on the ball and reading the quarterback instead of just dropping in the spot and waiting until the quarterback throws the ball – actually having an idea of what is going on.”
But there is something more at work – a little extra preparation, as in a little extra film room work, maybe?
“They ran a route (on his interception) we had studied all week, when they run three up the middle, three receivers down the middle and one coming back across,” Mark Paschal said. “I kind of went to jump it and then kind of sank back in and I don’t think he realized I had sunk back in – I got lucky and he just threw it to me.”
DRAUGHN IGNITES RUNNING GAME
After the Heels struggled through their first four games with a lackluster running game, Draughn rushed for 109 yards on 19 carries, including a 39-yard scamper through the middle of the Connecticut defense for a touchdown.
It was the first time this year a UNC running back broke the 100-yard mark.
“We complimented our running backs after the Miami game,” Davis said. “For as physical and as good a defense as Miami had we thought our running backs ran hard. We didn’t have a lot of yards, but they ran hard, they ran physical and if they will continue to do that throughout the year our running game will continue to improve.”
Ryan Houston was again a short-yardage specialist, including running the ball in from the one-yard line for a touchdown.
SEXTON STILL STEADY
Despite a first half interception – when he tried to make a play with a blitzing Huskie almost on top of him – Sexton had the calm and poise he displayed at Miami. His numbers were not great, but one particular play highlighted his growth as a quarterback, even though it was unsuccessful. On the next-to-last UNC possession of the first half, Sexton looked to his right, came off that target, and threw the ball to a wide open Greg Little. Little didn’t make the catch, but that play demonstrated that Sexton is working through his progressions instead of locking in on one or two receivers.
Sexton also used his scrambling ability to complete a touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks to run up the score to 38-6 just as the fourth quarter began, eluding a pass rusher before stepping up to make the touchdown throw. On Draughn’s touchdown run, quarterback Cameron Sexton called an audible at the line of scrimmage that worked. “It was an audible,” Draughn explained. “It was a read play for the quarterback, whether we were going to run one play, or the play we actually ran.”
It may not have been as impressive as his performance a week ago in Miami, but head coach Butch Davis seemed appreciative.
“I thought Cameron did an outstanding job of managing the game,” Davis said. “There were a lot of emotional ups and downs. It was kind of hard to get into a rhythm, because you would score in a couple of plays or the defense would get an interception or block a punt and it was kind of a bizarre game. I thought he managed the game well. He made some good throws. Certainly Hakeem made a phenomenal catch on the sidelines on a 3rd-and-20. There’s not many guys that can make that catch.”
The Huskies held the ball for nearly seven minutes longer than the Tar Heels in the first half, and received the kickoff to start the second half. The lights on the North side of the stadium went out at the 8:53 mark of the third period. Ironically, the power failure may have helped recharge the UNC defense. The Huskies held nearly a twelve minute time of possession advantage over UNC when the lights went down.
The Tar Heels went two-and-out after the lights came back up (it was UNC’s ball, 2nd-and-9, when the two North banks of lights went out). With the power out for 22 minutes, however, the UNC defense had a chance to rest. On the ensuing Connecticut possession, the UNC defense forced a three and out. That extra break might have made a difference.
The Tar Heels are 4-1, and there’s some chance they will be ranked in the next Top 25 poll. Their opponent next Saturday in Kenan Stadium – Notre Dame – may be as well.