The Tar Heel defense intended to prove on Saturday that last weekend’s dominating performance over The Citadel was no fluke, and defensive coordinator Everett Withers’ unit achieved that goal emphatically. North Carolina totaled four sacks and nine tackles for loss in holding the Huskies to just 196 yards of total offense, but the biggest play of the day came with 1:32 left in regulation. Facing a 3rd-and-22 from UConn’s eight-yard line, fifth-year senior left tackle Dan Ryan had no choice but to hold Robert Quinn in the end zone, resulting in a safety that would give UNC its final margin of victory.
The Huskies would recover an onside kick following the safety, but Bruce Carter’s sack on 4th-and-4 from the 50-yard line ended any hope of a comeback with 26 seconds left on the clock.
Connecticut’s longest drive of the afternoon was 46 yards – a possession that ended with an interception by Charles Brown (5 tackles, FF, FR).
North Carolina’s first nine drives resulted in 120 yards of total offense, but it was the last two possessions when the offensive line finally bought T.J. Yates (23-of-32 passing, 233 yards, TD, 2 INT) some time and the third-year starting quarterback delivered with a pair of 13-play drives. The first went for 78 yards but ended with a 22-yard Casey Barth field, as UNC was unable to punch the ball across the goal line despite having a 2nd-and-3 at the five-yard line.
The second possession, however, had a more glamorous ending. Ryan Houston pounded the Huskies' defense for 32 yards on six carries, and Yates ultimately found his third option in Zack Pianalto on a 3rd-and-goal from the two-yard line with 2:36 remaining.
The Tar Heels finished with 268 yards of total offense, despite posting just 35 rushing yards on 38 carries. Both teams committed two turnovers.
INSIDE THE GAME
Better Late Than Never
It’s difficult to pick which one looked worse – seeing UNC’s rushing totals on the third-quarter stat book (24 rushes for minus-two yards) or actually viewing the ground game during the first 45 minutes. With three starting blockers sidelined – OG Jonathan Cooper, C Lowell Dyer, FB Bobby Rome – an already inexperienced offense was dealt a harsh blow prior to kickoff.
Those fears proved true for much of the contest, as UNC managed just 35 yards on 38 rushing attempts. Shaun Draughn posted 21 yards on 14 carries, while Yates’ two scurries and six sacks tallied minus-26 yards.
Senior left tackle Kyle Jolly admitted that not having Cooper, Dyer and Rome adversely affected the entire offense’s rhythm.
“It was some of that, but it was also having some of the younger guys in there,” Jolly said. “… I just don’t think we came out and were ready to roll right off the bat.”
But second-half adjustments that geared on moving Yates around in the pocket and delivering quick short passes softened the UConn defense and opened the door for Houston’s battering-ram rendition in UNC’s game-tying drive.
“Their execution and focus was just on point,” UConn linebacker Greg Lloyd said. “We kind of lagged there at the end. They were on point with everything they were doing.”
For the Tar Heels, it was just another learning experience of how a game is 60 full minutes – sometimes longer, but never shorter.
“It took us a while to gel together in the fourth quarter, but we gelled together,” Houston said. “You’ve just got to be patient with the reads, and I’ve got faith in our linemen.”
A New Approach?
Butch Davis deflected questions this offseason about the “prevent” defense that gift-wrapped the Charlottesville, Va. curse’s existence for another two years while allowing Miami and Notre Dame opportunities to rally and fall just short of winning last season. The Tar Heels were notorious in ’08 for rushing three and dropping eight into coverage without a lack of quarterback pressure, but the ’09 defense is proving those tendencies wrong through two games.
Case in point – as Connecticut faced a 3rd-and-22 from its own eight-yard line, Marvin Austin bested center Moe Petrus and was charging full tilt at Cody Endres before the sophomore quarterback threw the ball well short of the first-down sticks. But unfortunately for head coach Randy Edsall, left tackle Dan Ryan was determined not to let Robert Quinn beat him around the corner, and ended up holding the sophomore in the end zone for the game-winning safety.
When Davis was asked if he thought that Quinn was being held on that play, the third-year UNC head coach replied, “Well, you knew it had a chance to be. We were getting some pretty good pressure on the quarterback throughout the game.”
And then with Connecticut facing a 4th-and-4 from midfield in the final seconds, Withers called for a blitz that tore down the pocket and allowed what was essentially a gang sack for North Carolina.
The Tar Heel defense had played so well – allowing just 196 total yards – that the boys in Carolina blue were determined to score points even if the offense couldn’t.
“It would have been easy to get down on ourselves,” junior cornerback Charles Brown said. “But we didn’t. We kept saying, ‘If we keep playing, we can end up coming up with points to win this game. There’s a lot of time left, so let’s just go play.’”
The Emergence of a Leader
It’s one thing for an offense to rally from a fourth-quarter 10-point deficit when the score is 35-25 and the defenses have been vulnerable, but it’s quite another when your offense has mustered just 120 yards of offense through nearly three quarters. It takes more than talent to overcome that challenge – it takes experience to be poised and leadership to ensure that your teammates have faith in you.
Yates took a huge step forward in that regard on Saturday.
“T.J. got us together and told us that he wasn’t [going] to lose this game,” Houston said. “I’m not saying what he really said, but he was like, ‘We can’t lose this game. We’ve got to show everybody that we’re a top-10 contender and that we can go on the road and win some games.’ And that’s what we did.”
During Davis’ tenure in Chapel Hill, 16 of the Tar Heels’ 27 games have been decided by seven points or less.