The Real Tar Heels Need To Stand Up

Right guard Jonathan Cooper says that this North Carolina team has great potential, when it’s not hurting itself with silly mistakes.

It couldn’t have been as easy as it looked for North Carolina (1-2, 0-1) against Elon in their season-opener. Turns out, it wasn’t. And it’s been anything but easy since.

The Carolina defense has been the scapegoat, and understandably: in the first half of the last two games, it has surrendered 631 total yards (8.3 per play), 57 points and 34 first downs. Carolina trailed 36-7 at the break to Louisville and 21-14 at Wake Forest. But in the second half of the last two games, it has clamped down to allow just 257 yards (3.8 per play), ten points and 17 first downs. (For more on the schizophrenic UNC defense, click here.)

The defensive issues have been well-documented. But the offense has had its share of issues, too. And mostly in the first half of the last two games. At Louisville, the Carolina offense hurt itself with everything from penalties to turnovers to bad snaps. The snaps were the most concerning part as center Russell Bodine has had a few in the last two games, and Carolina was lucky to recover some of them.

“It’s the center’s job to get the quarterback the ball and do it each and every play. Everybody overlooks him until he makes mistakes, but that guy is the most important guy,” North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said. “He, like a lot of guys, got flustered. Whatever could go wrong, went wrong.”

Right guard Jonathan Cooper more specifically invoked Murphy’s Law when talking about the first half of that game. He said that when the beleaguered Tar Heels reassembled in the locker room at halftime, the collective thought seemed to be, “Welp. We’re a little ways away from this one.”

Cooper recognized some similarities between Carolina’s second half comeback against Louisville and the comeback against LSU in the 2010 season-opener. Carolina had a chance to score to win both games, despite a bit of Murphy’s Law going into effect in the first half of both contests. He said that on Sunday night, a friend asked him which “near-win” was better.

“Uh, well…” Cooper said with a wry smile. “Right now? Neither of them really. Either way you look at it, we still lost, so.” He shrugged. “Maybe looking back on it, I can tell you which one was better but right now, it’s pretty difficult.”

Another similarity between those two games were the issues Carolina had snapping the ball. Cooper had a brief stint at center starting with that LSU game in 2010, but he had a few bad snaps. A reporter kindly brought that up to him, “Oh!” he said, laughing. “Cold world.”

Cooper is notoriously hard on himself, and he had trouble letting go of his mistakes against LSU. He didn’t want Bodine to let his mistakes eat at him, too. “You try to let it go and move forward but it sticks with you and kind of hangs over your head. You almost feel like you cost the game a little bit, so you’re battling internally with that,” Cooper said. “I just told him to calm down, it’s okay, just keep playing on. Because there’s nothing you can do about it now.”

Carolina ran a pro-style offense last year and didn’t run a lot of pass plays out of the shotgun, so the shotgun snap is somewhat of a new concept to Bodine. But Cooper said the issue is more pace. “We’re running at such a fast pace. He’s trying to do his assignment and get everybody on the same page and then usually it’s a play where he has to run or make a block that’s kind of out of the way, so the ball just goes errantly,” Cooper said.

But it hasn’t just been bad snaps: missed assignments on both sides of the ball, costly penalties, fumbles and interceptions have plagued the Tar Heels in both of their games against FBS foes. East Carolina (2-1) is coming to town this weekend, and the Pirates – who have made plenty of mistakes of their own – will be more than willing to capitalize on that.

Even though it was an FBS opponent, Carolina did show with a 62-0 win over Elon what it is capable of when it plays efficient, mistake-free football. And Cooper feels like his team is capable of doing that against just about anyone. Carolina was able to gain confidence from its close loss to LSU that propelled it into a number of unlikely wins in 2010, and he thinks that can happen again.

“It goes to show that if we are working on the same page and hitting on all cylinders, we can be a great football team,” Cooper said. “So it’s something to build on and if we can eliminate the costly mistakes, because we’re continuously shooting ourselves in the foot, so if we can eliminate those mistakes, I feel like we can be pretty good. That just goes to show what we can do.”

Mascot facts: Yes, ECU adopted the Pirate nickname because pirates were prevalent off the coast of North Carolina, blah blah blah. But did you know they also had a poodle mascot named Brandy? (To be fair, prior to Brandy the poodle, they used a great dane.)

Brandy, the former ECU poodle.

Prediction: North Carolina, 41-24. East Carolina is a pass-heavy team, which should scare Tar Heel fans. ECU beat Appalachian State 35-13 and won its conference opener at Southern Miss 24-14, but the Pirates’ lone loss was at South Carolina, 48-10. Since they’ve replaced quarterback Rio Johnson with Shane Carden, the passing game has been less explosive, but more efficient. Against Southern Miss, he completed 13-of-27 passes for 171 yards and a score in an effort best described as workmanlike. But Carolina has made the last two passing attacks it has faced look like the 2008 New England Patriots. But Carolina should get off to a better start and talent will win the day. Emphasis on should.

 

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