North Carolina (4-2, 0-2 ACC) swept its nonconference schedule with a suffocating defensive performance against Georgia Southern on Saturday night at Kenan Stadium. The Tar Heels forced six turnovers, highlighted by a Quan Sturdivant 49-yard fumble return for touchdown and a Bruce Carter 41-yard interception return for touchdown.
The Tar Heels scored all 42 points in the first half, needing just 10 minutes and 23 seconds to surpass the 10 total points the program put on the scoreboard in back-to-back losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia. UNC's 28 second-quarter points matched its most in a stanza since the Duke victory in 2000.
North Carolina held the Eagles to 170 total offensive yards, with the lone highlight being Adam Urbano's 45-yard touchdown scamper in the first quarter. Quarterback Lee Chapple was pressured all afternoon en route to a 14-of-27 passing performance that resulted in just 65 yards and three interceptions.
Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston powered the Tar Heels to 164 rushing yards and four touchdowns, while T.J. Yates (14-of-20, 118 yards) was efficient in managing the offense. The Eagles did force three turnovers of their own. UNC converted five of its 13 third-down opportunities, while holding Georgia Southern to a 3-of-16 mark.
INSIDE THE GAME
Sprinting Out of the Gate
If you combine North Carolina's opening-drive statistics from the first six games of ‘08 with the first five contests of '09, the final numbers are shocking – 77 total yards and three first downs on 40 plays.
On Saturday, the Tar Heels needed just 14 plays to grind out seven first downs and 89 yards in scoring their first opening-drive touchdown of the season. Those seven points matched the total amount of points scored in the first quarter of all five games in ‘09.
"I've got to believe that it gave them some confidence," head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his postgame press conference when asked about his offense's first possession.
Davis has highlighted his squad's struggles on first down, which often lead to 3rd-and-long situations that are difficult to convert. In the first drive against the Eagles, UNC averaged 7.5 yards on first down in eight attempts. Sixty of the Heels' 89 yards on that possession occurred on first down.
"It felt good moving the ball down the field," Yates said. "We changed up the tempo a little bit, kind of went fast and got up on the ball quick. Just doing different things to try to catch them off guard."
With North Carolina sporting one of the nation's best defenses, any early lead in the second half of the season will place an inordinate amount of pressure on opposing offenses.
Adding the Final Element
Speaking of UNC's defense, that group entered this contest ranked eighth nationally in total defense (251.2 ypg), 15th in scoring defense (14.6 ppg), fourth in pass defense (135.2) and fourth in tackles for a loss (9.4). But the Tar Heels had only forced seven turnovers this season after tallying 13 through five games in '08. The result was a minus-1.20 turnover margin (106th nationally, 11th ACC).
Unfortunately for Georgia Southern, the floodgates opened at Kenan Stadium on Saturday with six forced turnovers. In addition to Sturdivant's 49-yard fumble return for touchdown and Carter's 41-yard interception return for touchdown, Robert Quinn's sack fumble and E.J. Wilson's subsequent fumble recovery in the first quarter led to a 16-yard touchdown possession.
Two plays after Carter's touchdown, linebacker Zach Brown intercepted Chapple on Georgia Southern's 22-yard-line and Houston turned that into another scoring drive three plays later from seven yards out.
In all, the North Carolina defense scored 14 points and put its offense in position to score another 14 points, needing just four plays and 38 yards. As good as this Tar Heel defense has been this season, providing points lifts Everett Withers' unit to a whole different level.
"It's very important – that's what we need," Sturdivant said. "Create turnovers and get the ball back to the offense as many times as possible and give them more times to score. We scored tonight, which was good, but we've just got to keep creating turnovers."
It helps that UNC's defense is loaded with playmakers – seven different individuals had a hand in forcing the six turnovers.
A Confidence Builder
The offensive formula coming into Saturday's contest was simple – familiar play-calling that allowed for easier execution and thus built confidence for a group brimming with youth and inexperience. But sometimes a gut check can provide a confidence boost when the players least expect it.
With North Carolina facing a 2nd-and-goal from Georgia Southern's one-yard-line with 10 seconds remaining before halftime and the Tar Heels out of timeouts, the expected play-call would consist of a quick pass play that would allow time for a field goal attempt if the throw failed.
Davis was leaning towards that approach with a 35-7 lead, but Ryan Houston had other plans.
"I looked at Coach Davis and said, ‘Coach, I can get us in there. We're on the [one-yard] line. Just put me in there, please. Let me just run it. I promise you I can get in there,'" Houston said. "And he was like, ‘Get in there – run it, then.' So he just gave me the ball and we just drove in. I just knew we could get it in."
Regardless of how well the offensive line played on Saturday, knowing that the coaching staff and Houston trusted them in that situation, when anything less than a touchdown would result in the game clock expiring with no points, is a shot in the arm that cannot be manufactured in any other setting.
"It's just a confidence boost for them knowing that we can run the ball," Houston said.