After a slow start that resulted in a 0-0 tie 15 minutes into Saturday’s season opener opener, Casey Barth drilled the first of his two field goal attempts to put North Carolina on the board. With the butterflies out of their system, the Tar Heels utilized a dominant defense and a solid offensive performance to notch their first win of 2009.
T.J. Yates connected on 9-of-20 passes for 114 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, although his totals were affected by five drops from his young group of receivers. The Tar Heels churned out 261 yards on the ground, led by junior Shaun Draughn’s 118 yards, marking the largest rushing total under Butch Davis’ watch. Junior Ryan Houston resumed his short-yardage role, adding 45 yards and two touchdowns in the victory. UNC rolled up 375 total yards of offense against the Bulldogs.
North Carolina’s defense lived up to its preseason hype in Saturday’s blowout victory over The Citadel. The Tar Heels built a virtual brick wall at the line of scrimmage, allowing the Bulldogs just 30 total rushing yards on 20 carries. That absence of a ground game created a one-dimensional offense for fifth-year head coach Kevin Higgins, whose squad managed just 153 total yards and coughed up four turnovers.
Quarterback Bart Blanchard completed 21-of-37 passes for 117 yards with three interceptions – two by the hands of UNC free safety Deunta Williams.
Da’Norris Searcy also delivered a 77-yard punt return for touchdown in his first game in that role.
INSIDE THE GAME
Turning Potential into Production
“'Potential' is a word that I’m getting sick of hearing.”
That was Deunta Williams’ quote to Inside Carolina nearly four weeks ago about his Tar Heel defense. On Saturday night, UNC took the first step in turning that potential into production. Granted, the Bulldogs will struggle to win games this season at the FCS level, but they won’t be dominated as thoroughly as they were at Kenan Stadium.
The key ingredient was one that Davis has harped on since arriving in Chapel Hill three seasons ago – run defense. North Carolina held The Citadel to a 1.5-yards-per-rush average en route to 30 net rushing yards.
“I feel like when we stop the run and make a team one dimensional, we have the playmakers up front in pass rushing and guys in the secondary that can make plays on the ball, force sacks and sack-fumbles,” senior defensive end E.J. Wilson said. “Stopping the run is our main goal.”
With the ground game in neutral – and sometimes in reverse – the Bulldogs were literally scrambling for their lives. The Tar Heels tallied 10 tackles for loss and two sacks, but even more importantly, the Bulldogs converted just 2-of-16 third-down conversions.
“We felt like our defense was going to play extremely well,” Davis told reporters during his postgame press conference. “I think our speed, our ability to put pressure on the quarterback, the ability to minimize run after the catch and minimize big plays. They just did a great job of creating turnovers and handling some sudden change situations.”
As for fueling UNC’s defensive hype, The Citadel head coach didn’t do Davis any favors.
“North Carolina’s front four and linebackers is as good as anybody in the country,” Higgins said. “That group is as good as Florida, the national champs last year. I don’t think there is any question about that.”
Higgins should know – the Gators blasted his Bulldogs 70-19 last fall. The Citadel managed 4.2 yards per play against the defending national champions on 317 total yards. The Bulldogs were held to a 2.6 yards-per-play-average on Saturday.
Special and Not So Special Teams
Replacing Brandon Tate’s return abilities, Terrence Brown’s punting prowess and Jay Wooten’s kickoff duties was a huge emphasis of training camp for this UNC coaching staff. There were positives on Saturday, and then there were negatives.
On the plus side, Grant Schallock booted three punts for a 41.0 average, including a 52-yarder that yielded a touchback.
“We felt like he handled the moment well,” Davis said. “He was able to handle the tempo, the pressure. They blocked four punts a year ago and we knew they had the ability
to put some pressure on the punter. I think our protection people did a nice job.”
Davis lauded his kickoff cover unit as “outstanding,” despite Kevin Hardy averaging 24.3 yards per return, including a long of 34 yards. Casey Barth faired well in his new kickoff role, consisting landing the ball inside the five-yard line. As a placekicker, the Wilmington, N.C. sophomore missed an extra point due to a bad snap, but otherwise was perfect on the evening.
The return game brought both good news and bad news. Good in the form of Da’Norris Searcy’s 77-yard punt return for touchdown while straddling the home sideline.
“I think everybody was interested in how Da’Norris Searcy would do as a punt
returner, and I think he showed tonight that not only does he have running
skills, but he has good hands, the ability to make some people miss and he
can give us that big play that we certainly missed the second half of last
season,” Davis said.
The bad came in the form of two muffed punts – one in which Brian Gupton backed into Kendric Burney as he tried to field a punt early in the fourth quarter and another when Charles Brown failed to catch the ball in the closing minutes. Both flubs resulted in field goals for The Citadel.
The Benefits of a Blowout
Davis opened training camp by meeting with the media back on Aug. 7. During that initial press conference, the third-year UNC head coach stressed the importance of building the depth of his program. On Saturday night, 70 different Tar Heels worked into the rotation, providing the entire second-team unit, as well as some third-string players, with numerous opportunities to take the field.
“When kids know that they’re going to get into the game, there’s no question that they practice better, they’re more into it, they study more film and they’re more excited,” Davis said. “Obviously, you’d love to continue to do that. There’s going to be games where we’re not that fortunate… When you do get that opportunity, it really gives your guys an awful lot of positive vibes about the program, but it also gives us valuable experience.”
Included in those 70 players were 11 true freshmen – WR Joshua Adams,
RB/QB A.J. Blue,
RG Travis Bond,
WR Jheranie Boyd,
RB Hunter Furr,
WR Erik Highsmith,
DE Donte Paige-Moss,
LB Shane Mularkey,
LB Kevin Reddick,
DB Gene Robinson,
OT Brennan Williams.