North Carolina (6-4, 3-3) at Virginia (4-6, 2-4), Thursday, 7:30 PM, ESPN
There’s not much you can say if you’re Carolina, coming off a game where your offense scored 50 points and the defensive surrendered 68. The stink of the Georgia Tech dismantling still lingers around this team, and probably will for quite some time. But the Tar Heels don’t have a lot of time to dwell on it. (Although I attempted to make some sense of the pointsplosion here).
Last week was embarrassing, to be sure. But there after facing the unconventional triple-option offense, there’s not a lot to take away from the game tape defensively. So why not just set it on fire (metaphorically speaking, of course)?
So with a short week ahead of them, trying to defend a pro-style offense that is decidedly nothing like the triple-option, that’s what the Tar Heels did. Even Virginia head coach Mike London said they wouldn’t use the tape.
“You don’t as much look at the Georgia Tech game as far as defensively for them because it’s a different style,” London said. “Anyone that plays Georgia Tech and has to defend that offense, sometimes you don’t always look at how the other defense is playing because you have to play it different.”
North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora pointed out that miscues on offense and special teams led directly to 24 of Georgia Tech’s 68 points. But the triple-option offense hasn’t been the only one to dissect Carolina’s defense. After not allowing 500 yards of total offense all year, UNC has allowed at least 500 for three straight games – 510 to Duke, 534 to NC State and 588 to Georgia Tech.
Just as Carolina’s defense is headed in the wrong direction, UVa’s offense has found itself. Since the bye week, the quarterback rotation of Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims (which London admitted was “random” rather than alternating from series to series) has seemingly made both better.
Rocco has completed 41-of-60 passes for 383 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in the last two games while Sims is 19-of-24 for 203 yards, one touchdown and no picks. The two combined for 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions before that.
It will be a challenge for the Carolina defense. At this point in the season, there’s obviously no possibility of a bowl or even of finishing with the best record in the Coastal Division. As right guard Jonathan Cooper told his teammates before the NC State game, they’re playing for pride and for each other. They’d better have plenty of both if they want to win in Charlottesville.
Moments in North Carolina-Virginia history: North Carolina vs. Virginia, aka “The Oldest Rivalry in the South”, will renew for the 117th time. The two first played in 1892 and have met continuously since 1919. UNC leads 58-54-4, but Virginia leads 24-22 at home (odd that isn’t a bigger lead, considering UNC didn’t win there from 1983-2008).
Virginia has a strong Thursday night history: the Cavaliers have played on Thursday just once since 2006 (a 28-21 win at Miami last year) but are 6-5 overall (3-1 at home). The Cavaliers haven’t lost a home Thursday night game since 1997 (28-17 to No. 16 Auburn).
UNC is 5-4 on Thursday night, but its last Thursday night trip to Virginia essentially sealed former head coach John Bunting’s fate. Carolina lost 23-0 to a 2-5 UVa team, gaining 11 first downs and 182 total yards. Former Tar Heel and current New York Giant Hakeem Nicks – then a freshman – caught a third of Carolina’s completed passes from Joe Dailey and Cam Sexton for 40 yards, nearly half UNC’s passing total (84).
From the Jarrett House North blog, this song was written in the late 1800’s by a UVa student and it’s called “Oh, Carolina”:
See the Tar Heels, how they’re running
Turpentine from every pore.
They can manufacture rosin,
But they’ll never, never score.
This remains perhaps the worst loss of the Butch Davis era: in 2008, No. 18 UNC lost in overtime at Virginia. UVa was 3-3 entering the game and had lost to UConn by 35, Duke by 28 and USC by 45. Carolina was coming off three straight wins over Miami, UConn and Notre Dame.
Not to pile on ACC officiating….but this remains one of the biggest facepalm-inducing moments in recent officiating history.
Sorry to do this to you, Carolina fans. It’s 1996 at UVa, which remains probably the most painful loss in UNC football history.
From UNC’s win in Charlottesville in 2010. This pretty much set the tone.
Prediction: Virginia, 33-27. If Virginia can win out, they will be bowl-eligible. They have Virginia Tech next week and the Hokies are as vulnerable as they’ve ever been, but Virginia has to get this one first. Virginia is rolling, UNC is reeling and its defense is seemingly getting worse just as UVa’s offense is clicking. Bad, bad timing for the Tar Heels.
Week 11: 4-2 (3-2 ACC)
TOTAL: 52-19 (24-13 ACC)
Georgia Tech (4-5, 3-3) at North Carolina (6-3, 3-2), 12:30 PM, ACC Network
As a defender, there’s not much fun about facing off against Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack. You have an assignment and you tackle that person play after play after play after play, even if you know he doesn’t have the ball. “It gets frustrating because you’re like, ‘I know he doesn’t have the ball but I’ve got to tackle him anyway.’ But at some point in the game, you’ve got to understand he’s going to have the ball and you’re going to make a play,” defensive tackle Sylvester Williams said.
“The other 12 times in the series that he doesn’t, you’ve got to tackle him anyway and then get up and then run to the person who does have the ball. It’s nerve-wracking, but at the same time, it’s my job and I want my team to win. …. I may make a couple tackles on the fullback this game, but if not, I’m going to have fun tackling him and he’s going to take a beating.”
The Tar Heels are playing a lot of youngsters on defense, and they’ve had lapses from time to time, particularly in the secondary. All it takes is one missed coverage at the wrong time and Georgia Tech will be in the end zone. Williams remembered his first taste of the offense last year and how long it took him to adjust.
“Last year, it came as a shock to me. I had guys telling me, ‘It’s going to be like this, Sly.’ Then I played and I was like, ‘Yeah, they were right – except ten times faster.’ You can’t really prepare for it,” Williams said. “You’ve got to kind of go into the game and hope that you did everything you could in practice and hope you’re a good enough player to get the job done.”
Because of NCAA sanctions, North Carolina can’t recognize the Coastal Division crown if they finish with the best record. But they’d like to go ahead and do that anyway. “Our goal is to win the Coastal Division, and we are still within reach of our goal. I think they’re excited about that,” North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said. “They know that we really control our own destiny if we take care of our business. I think the main focus for these two weeks has been Georgia Tech.”
Moments in Georgia Tech-North Carolina history: Georgia Tech leads the series 26-18-3 and 16-12-1 since joining the ACC, but in Chapel Hill, the series is much closer (an 11-9-3 Georgia Tech lead). Carolina has lost the last two meetings by a combined 13 points.
Hey, remember when Stephen Hill could catch? Me neither. But he could!
The last time North Carolina beat Georgia Tech was 2008….and look at what color their jerseys were!
This clip needs no setup.
Prediction: North Carolina, 37-27. In wins, Georgia Tech has averaged 422.8 rushing yards per game while in losses, just 234.6. North Carolina can actually defend the run. Though this isn’t a conventional rushing attack, the Tar Heels have had a week to prepare (insert narrative about teams coming off an open date before Georgia Tech). And Georgia Tech’s defense still isn’t very good.
NC State (5-2, 2-1) at North Carolina (5-3, 2-2), 12:30 PM, ACC Network
North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner might be fiery on the field, but he is still the son of a football coach. And his answers – even during the week leading up to North Carolina’s biggest rivalry game of the year against NC State – reflected that. Turner Walston, a Tar Heel Monthly magazine editor and GoHeels.com writer, has covered Renner for a long time. So he decided to press Renner (playfully) for a bit more candor.
TW: Bryn, be honest.
BR: Gotcha. I always am.
TW: You can’t go to a bowl game.
BR: That’s correct. I’m aware of that.
TW: The ACC has said even if you’re top in Coastal, you can’t win it.
TW: The state championship is out the window.
BR: That’s correct.
If you’re going to salvage something from this season, the fans want you to beat NC State.
BR: Absolutely. (Sees teammates walking by. Waves at them, stalling for time, leans over in his chair to say something to them.) Hey guys! (Laughs nervously.) Yeah, you know. It’s sad to say, but I just don’t buy into all that stuff. I know it’s cliched and you guys are going to think I’m lying, but –
(Andrew Carter of the News and Observer): We think you’re a coach’s son.
BR: I am, but it just comes – it’s how I was raised. You’ve got to prepare for every game like it’s going to be NC State or it’s going to be whoever you guys want it to be. Whoever you guys want us to play, I’m so focused on what we have to do as an offense, that’s my main focus. How can we get the ball in the end zone for us to win games? I sound like a broken record. We could play the frickin’ Bears or the best defense in the league, the 49ers. We could go be playing them and I want to focus on how can we as an offense put the ball in the end zone.
And NC State head coach Tom O’Brien – who has been a responder during game-week and an instigator afterwards during this five-game winning streak – wasn’t biting, either. He and Raleigh News and Observer beat writer Joe Giglio always provide entertaining banter, but other reporters pressed him about the rivalry, too. And he did nothing but either praise the Tar Heels and their coaching staff or carefully dodge potential minefield-type questions.
He was reminded that in the off-season, North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said at a booster event that he didn’t want to “legitimize” NC State. Normally the type of comment that would provoke at least a subtle jab from O’Brien, he only said: “That’s like recruiting rhetoric – it’s the same thing that happens in rival games. You just forget about it and move on. It doesn’t mean a lot.”
So both teams are left to pump themselves up for this game. Of course, that hasn’t been an issue for NC State. But under former head coach Butch Davis, UNC was thought to be taking the game too lightly – or, at least, not as seriously as their neighbors up I-40. Davis often refused to recognize the significance of the game. North Carolina fans would often blame that attitude for the losses.
But Renner seemed to take offense to that notion. “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. We know how we prepare and how we want to play. I think if you’re a fan … you’re always going to have your opinion against the other person. So I think that’s where everybody voices their opinions from and it’s based on that. But as far as do we not take it as (seriously), (does NC State) take it more personally, I don’t think that’s the case. I think we really look forward to playing them. They’re a very good opponent. Right down the street from us, so we always want to play our best when we play them.”
Fedora isn’t taking any chances, though. He decorates the Carolina locker room with NC State paraphernalia on Sunday immediately after Carolina’s disappointing 33-30 loss to Duke. Posters of NC State celebrating wins, the Wolfpack schedule, even red and white ribbons (“it looked like almost like he went to party city and put up all the flyers and the big hoopla,” Renner said). When told about it, O’Brien got as controversial as he would get all week, and that was with a joke: “I mean, I wasn’t over there. I was flying back, so I don’t know who did it.”
NC State is on a two-game winning streak with a win over a top-five Florida State team and their first Atlantic Division road win a week ago at Maryland. North Carolina is coming off of a 33-30 loss at Duke, its third this season by five points or less. Carolina is 1-3 in those games while NC State is 3-1 in close games.
NC State safety Earl Wolff is never at a loss for words, and even he was low-key about the rivalry. For the most part. “I just feel like if we come out and play with that same intensity we played with last year, a lot of people say we’re not really road warriors, we’re not really that good on the road, but if you can’t get hype for the Carolina game then you shouldn’t even walk on the field that day,” Wolff said. “That’s how we feel. That’s how everybody feels. So we’re just going to try to stop them, stop their offense and win that game.”
If it sounds simple, it’s been just that simple for NC State in recent years. It’s an uphill battle for the Tar Heels, who have lost games to the Wolfpack in the last five years similarly to the way they’ve lost games this season: close, and late. Carolina has lost to NC State in a blowout, and after falling behind early and having comebacks fall short, and even after losing late leads.
Carolina has become famous for its comebacks this year, except for the fact that none of their comebacks have resulted in wins. But Carolina has erased – or nearly erased – second-half deficits of 29 points and 14 points (in the fourth quarter last week) this season, only to fall just short. “If we can just focus, put together our game plan, not shoot ourselves in the foot, do what’s necessary early on then it won’t matter,” UNC right guard Jonathan Cooper said. “If we’re able to finish drives not with field goals but with touchdowns then we won’t be talking about the last late minutes of the quarter.”
A few slightly different bounces of the football (specifically, Maryland’s kicker bouncing a 30-yard field goal inside the goal post), and NC State would have also been on the end of a heartbreaking loss. But after three close wins this season (two in the last two contests), the Wolfpack feels confident it can win those games. And of course, they’re confident that if they play like they should, they can win their sixth straight.
NC State has been an inconsistent bunch under O’Brien, but when they’re on, as Wolff pointed out, they’re hard to stop. They just want to stay loose, relax and have fun. And why not? It’s worked so far.
“Sometimes, you see spotlights during games, we bring that energy. When we have that energy, it’s hard for a lot of teams to stop us,” Wolff said. “Coach O’Brien talks a lot about enthusiasm, everybody being very enthusiastic and it starts in practice. I feel like once somebody makes a play and I get hype, it feeds off to other people….We’re going to have to just reenact that out, really, and just have fun. It’s all about having fun. That’s what football is about. We’re going to try to have fun and win Saturday.”
Moments in NC State-North Carolina history: Just as I ran across the gem of the Duke mascot nearly killing a UNC student with a trident in an old Daily Tar Heel, I found some other NC State-related tales as well. From the November 3, 1935 DTH:
NC State students came over right before the football game to try to steal Rameses III and got a ewe instead. They stole instead a black bull, a “perfumed billy goat and a horse that laughed.” They disguised themselves as Carolina students. “But the ways of city fellers are queer and, and, after chasing the poor critter half way back to Raleigh, they finally got it in the car to be put on display at a State pep rally. One thing was overlooked. Rameses III is a ram, but not this substitute which made no difference to engineers, reserve officers or city fellers. State students obviously don’t believe in stealing rams, like ewe, ewe and ewe.”
At the State game in Raleigh, State fans brought in two cows that had red-painted signs that read “We’ll Beat Carolina and This Is No Bull” and the other said “Carolina is a Lot of Bull”. One cow wouldn’t move and they had to carry it. The State ram got loose and threw off the State colors, causing the Carolina fans to stand and cheer, but they caught the ram. Some kids from Chapel Hill High steal a sign and half of the State stands chase after them and get it back.
From the 1999 10-6 Carolina win, a thriller that saw perhaps two of the worst quarterbacked games in each school’s history:
Equal time: Russell Wilson’s crazy “Hail Mary” against North Carolina in 2010:
A look back at the good old days when both coaches would talk some trash (and by “good old days” I mean “last year”):
Prediction: NC State, 27-24. Unlike Las Vegas, who has made the Tar Heels the favorites for each of the last five games, I’ll believe that North Carolina will beat NC State once it actually happens. They’re capable of doing it, and it seems like the rivalry is due for a UNC win. But of two inconsistent teams, I’ll go with the one that seems the least inconsistent.
North Carolina (4-2, 1-1) at Miami (4-2, 3-0)
Moments in North Carolina-Miami history: Sure, there’s the 2003 UNC upset over No. 3 Miami that essentially saved John Bunting’s job. But with all the recent twists and turns this rivalry has taken since, that one doesn’t seem as memorable. In a moment that summed up the rivalry throughout the Butch Davis era, the Miami players – down 20-0 in Chapel Hill in 2007 – began dancing during a TV timeout. Carolina didn’t appreciate it, and Brandon Tate scored on the next play to give UNC a 27-0 lead. (Now, UNC went on to win just 33-27, but still.)
Jacory Harris giveth, and….Jacory Harris giveth.
Imagining this guy arguing with Tom O’Brien about which team beat itself more, NC State or Miami, makes my head hurt. “Wieclaw, man….Wieclaw.” “He kind of looked like Sean Taylor for a second, man!” Oh, and “firing on all pistons”.
Prediction: North Carolina, 54-48. Yep. A basketball score. Considering how both of these teams have struggled on defense, especially Miami (and Carolina’s defense on the road), this figures to be a high-scoring affair. Which probably means one of the teams will win like 20-6. Carolina has looked like the better all-around team, and a 48-34 beatdown of Virginia Tech last weekend more or less proved that the Tar Heels are for real. Carolina has been much crisper offensively over the past few weeks, and that figures to carry over to the Miami game. They wore down Virginia Tech’s defense as they executed their up-tempo offense to near perfection. Tailback Giovani Bernard’s impact on the offense was on display against Virginia Tech as he turned ordinary-looking runs into explosive plays, and he will be back in his home state on Saturday in front of tens…of fans. Miami quarterback Stephen Morris put up 566 yards against NC State, though, so he could be in for a big day too.
Duke (5-1, 2-0) at Virginia Tech (3-3, 1-1)
Moments in Duke-Virginia Tech history: We’ll go the funny video route.
Bud Foster isn’t just a defensive coordinator. He can also surf.
I’m sorry, Anthony Boone. Still funny.
Duke safety Chris Tavarez was in “Avalon High”, a Disney movie. When you have a chance to see him act alongside another great in WTVD’s Mark Armstrong, you can’t pass it up.
Prediction: Duke, 26-24. It seems like too tall an order to ask Duke to go up to Blacksburg and beat an angry Virginia Tech team for the first time since 1981. But almost everything Duke has accomplished this year, particularly considering all of its injuries, has seemed improbable. Also, I’m not convinced that Virginia Tech’s players aren’t starting to give up on this season. They seemed demoralized last Saturday. All it will take is Duke sticking around in this one, or even getting out to an early lead. But if Duke reverts to the team it has been at times that can’t move the ball and/or turns it over, Virginia Tech will gain confidence. Duke quarterback Sean Renfree is questionable for the game, but backup Anthony Boone performed well in his absence. But Duke will need to run the ball effectively on the Hokies to win the game, and the defense will have to play as well in the first half as it has in the second to have a chance.
Boston College (1-4, 0-2) at No. 12/11 Florida State (5-1, 2-1)
Moments in Boston College-Florida State history: Well, this is recent history: BC’s Jaryd Rudolph was charged with secretly making an audio recording of two students having sex. We’ll just avoid comment there.
Not sure how I missed this, but a Boston College fan threw a fake flag in from the stands. That is just awesome.
This guy involves his daughter, a state championship and Tyga in a “Chop City” FSU rap.
I could be wrong, but I’m reasonably sure there are a number of personal fouls in this pump-up video.
Prediction: Florida State, 44-17. If Jimbo Fisher is ever going to trust quarterback EJ Manuel, now’s the time to show it. Boston College’s defense is horrendous. But it’s more than just a strategic decision: Fisher clearly didn’t trust Manuel to put his proverbial foot on NC State’s throat a week ago after he threw an interception. Even Manuel said he thought the Seminoles would have thrown more against the Wolfpack. FSU is clearly not “back”, as they say, but they’re getting closer. It would be nice to see Fisher trust himself, and his starting quarterback, more going forward. Bobby Bowden was a lot of things, but he was never someone who played not to lose. There’s something to be said for that.
Maryland (3-2, 1-0) at Virginia (2-4, 0-2)
Moments in Maryland-Virginia history: In 2003, there was a pregame scuffle between Virginia head coach Al Groh and former Maryland offensive coordinator (and current Vanderbilt head coach) James Franklin. It resulted in a bizarre moment where Maryland’s team got a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by running onto the field just before kickoff as a group. And ACC fans everywhere I’m sure were comforted to see it was Ron Cherry meting out justice.
Prediction: Maryland, 24-16. Oh and also, pain. Virginia’s Phillip Sims had some nice moments in his first start at Duke before the Cavaliers were forced to go one-dimensional and try to make a comeback. But Maryland’s defense has been excellent this year. Virginia’s defense has struggled, but Maryland’s offense would seemingly struggle to score against no defense. This game figures to be a low-scoring slugfest, and I mean that in the worst way possible.
Last week: 5-2 (4-1 ACC)
TOTAL: 35-10 (8-4 ACC)
North Carolina (3-2, 0-1) could not possibly be coming into this game feeling better about itself. The Tar Heels have won their last two games by a combined score of 93-6 and haven’t allowed a touchdown in that span. (Of course, they have played East Carolina and Idaho.)
Virginia Tech (3-2, 1-0), meanwhile, has lost two of its last three games to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster is already salty, but he went on a profanity-laced tirade in support of his defense earlier this week.
The Hokies have history on their side to show that they’ll get out of an early-season slump: In 2010, Virginia Tech lost its first two games to Boise State and James Madison before winning 11 straight, including the ACC Championship. Virginia Tech won the Coastal Division in 2008 after a loss to East Carolina to start the year and in 2007 after the a 48-7 blowout loss at LSU.
Every time it seems like the Hokies are sure to be in the midst of a down year, head coach Frank Beamer and company manage to pull off a Coastal Division title. It doesn’t matter what the Hokies do out of conference. And now? They’re underdogs in this game against a Carolina team that hasn’t seen a team this good since Week 3, and the Hokies are mad.
And really, there’s no telling how good the Tar Heels are. This game will be the best indicator. Their head coach Larry Fedora is afraid to guess who his team really is. “Well just as soon as I say that, then they prove me wrong,” he said. “We are becoming more consistent. Just the way we prepare, we’ve done a nice job of preparing the same way each and every week. Our energy level in practice, our focus, all of those things – we’re going to try to do a great job of focusing on ourselves this week and making sure that we take care of ourselves.”
Virginia Tech’s offense has struggled all year, but Carolina’s defense has had its share of bad games. Virginia Tech’s defense has been maligned for a variety of reasons, but the biggest problem the Hokies have had is time of possession. If the Tar Heels can take care of the ball and keep Virginia Tech going three-and-out, they can win. But if they make mistakes against a salty swarm of Hokie defenders, they’ll be in for a long day.
Quarterback Bryn Renner knows that well. He is a Virginia native, and both of his parents went to Virginia Tech. He says the game isn’t personal – for him, it’s a chance to go up against one of the best defensive coordinators in the game in Bud Foster. “It’s the way he prepares. He tries to put quarterbacks in the biggest bind that he can,” Renner said. “That’s what it is great about this game is when you go up against a great coordinator like himself, you get challenged. It’s all about who prepares more, and he really does a great job of trying to confuse you out there. We’re just looking forward to the challenge.”
Carolina is 0-2 against teams from BCS conferences this year, it’s hard to predict them to win, but they do have a potential x-factor offensively. Tailback Giovani Bernard was out in both games, and while he certainly wasn’t the reason Carolina lost those games, his presence could be what puts the Tar Heels over the top on Saturday.
And if the Tar Heels are a different team with Bernard, then it will give everyone an idea – finally – of just what the potential of this team actually is. Bernard, for his part, is willing to carry Carolina as far as he needs to.
“For me, whenever I touch the ball, I want people to hold their breath. I want people to say ‘ooh’ or ‘ahh’ or whatever,” Bernard said with a grin. “That’s what I want to pride myself on. I want people to feel that. I want people to be afraid of me whenever I’m on the field. If it’s catching the ball out of the backfield, returning punts, kick returns, running the ball, I want the defense or the opponents to have that fear of me, that he could take it all the way.”
Randomness: I could do mascot facts, or moments in history….or I could share a B-movie movie called “Thankskilling” about a murdering turkey that talks. As it turns out, there are no clean clips of that movie, so you’ll have to Google it. But when you start searching for turkey clips on YouTube, it can lead you down the rabbit hole. Or the turkey hole.
I’m sure there’s a Beamer Ball joke here somewhere:
If you want actual football, here’s footage of North Carolina’s only win over Virginia Tech since the Hokies joined the ACC:
And here’s Logan Thomas being Logan Thomas against the 2011 Tar Heel defense:
Prediction: Virginia Tech, 27-20. After going against the classic ACC scenarios last week because they seemed too obvious, I’m going all in on the craziness of the ACC this week. Which means Virginia Tech, which has looked awful against two Big East teams, will suddenly become the dominant Coastal Division force everyone thought it would be. This is much less about the Tar Heels, who have looked much better, and more about the Hokies, who tend to do this.
The word “potential” is thrown around a lot when it comes to North Carolina’s 6-4, 235-pound sophomore tight end Eric Ebron. He has the size and strength of a defensive end, but the speed and grace of a wide receiver. On every play, he has the potential to make a huge gain. But like a lot of young players, he also has the potential to make head-scratching mistakes.
A classic Ebron sequence: he committed his second false start of the game in the second quarter against East Carolina, turning a 3rd and 6 into a 3rd and 12. His slight twitch was not nearly as bad as his first false start of the afternoon had been when he stutter-stepped way before the snap.
“Right now, we do silent count, so (center) Russell Bodine – to me, when I jump, it’s because I see the ball fidget. I’m trying to move as soon as the ball is moved,” Ebron said with a sheepish smile. “As of right now, my new motto is just be delayed off (the line). When the ball is completely in (Renner’s) hands, then I’m going to go.”
On the very next play, though, quarterback Bryn Renner found him. Ebron lowered his shoulder into ECU defensive back Desi Brown, who fell backwards harmlessly despite being 6-2, 209 pounds. Ebron proceeded to leap over him as easily as he might step over a puddle and power down the field to the ECU 5-yard line for a first down.
“The coaches were giving me a hard time until I made that very creative play that I made,” Ebron said. “They were getting at me about that until then, and then I quit false-starting.”
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And just for good measure, Renner found him again when he was covered by a linebacker, who didn’t stand a chance once Ebron caught the ball. On his way to a 27-yard run, he stiff-armed a defensive back.
“That’s exactly how you make up for it,” Ebron said. “Two wrongs don’t make a right, and I had two big wrongs. I had to make them right, so.”
So he had two “wrongs”, and two big “rights”. Sounds about right.
At Louisville, Ebron had five catches for 38 yards and two touchdowns but two false starts, including a crucial one when Carolina was trying to score the game-winner. After the game, Ebron was simultaneously angry at himself and his team for the slow start while also defiantly confident in what they’re capable of doing.
“The little mistakes that I made, I’ve got to polish them up. If you don’t start the way you’re supposed to start, then you can’t finish the way you want to finish,” Ebron said.
“I knew from the start that Louisville couldn’t hang with us if we played Carolina football. We came out playing football from another universe or something. In the second half, we got back down to earth. We buckled down and realized that we were the better team and tried to make a comeback.”
Renner had to grin when asked about Ebron’s false starts. “I know we had a play called for him when he jumped offsides both times (against ECU),” Renner said. “I think he was just chomping at the bit to go get the ball. But he’s a great player and he made up for it – after he jumped offsides, he made a heck of a play. So Coach will yell at him pretty good but the next play, he was praising him.”
But Carolina is so Ebron. At times, the Tar Heels look dominant on both sides of the ball, oozing with confidence and making plays in all three phases of the game. At other times, their defense looks like a sieve, the special teams unit commits penalty after penalty and the offense can only move the ball backwards. When it’s clicking, it’s beautiful to watch. Same with Ebron.
One Louisville touchdown came when a defensive end had no shot at covering him, and he trucked a linebacker in the end zone. At Wake Forest, he caught a touchdown on a balletic leaping grab over a Deacon safety. Who guards him, exactly? Defensive ends and linebackers aren’t quick enough, and defensive backs aren’t tall or strong enough.
He’s already got his sights set high, modeling his game after two of the best tight ends in the NFL that are also matchup nightmares. But Ebron is more than capable of being that good: someday. “I definitely look up to Jimmy Graham. I believe we kind of play alike,” Ebron said after the ECU win. “I’m not on his level because he’s a pro, but I believe that’s who I resemble and that’s who I look up to: him and Vernon Davis.”
Mascot facts: Idaho’s mascot, the Vandal, did not have as awesome an origin as anticipated. Turns out, former basketball coach Hec Edmundson’s team in 1917 was said to play so fiercely, they “vandalized” opponents on the court. According to the Idaho official athletics site, “The nickname exemplifies the spirit of the University in more than just athletics; as University of Idaho Vandals, we are fiercely competitive and independent thinkers and doers.”
Prediction: North Carolina, 59-12. North Carolina will want to score some points in this one, and Idaho has shown they are happy to oblige. The Vandals lost 20-3 to Eastern Washington, 21-13 to Bowling Green, 63-14 to LSU and 40-37 to Wyoming in their most recent game. So with the exception of LSU, they’ve been fairly competitive. The Tar Heels need to keep their defensive momentum going; they still haven’t allowed a touchdown at home this season.
Last week: 8-1 (1-1 ACC)
Season: 26-4 (2-2 ACC)
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.)
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.
North Carolina (1-1, 0-1) at No. 19/20 Louisville (2-0), 3:30 PM, ABC/ESPN2
The last time Carolina beat a ranked team on the road (No. 24 Florida State in 2010), Casey Barth kicked the game-winner with 55 seconds left to give Carolina a 37-35 lead. Barth was 2-of-2 on his field goal attempts at Wake Forest last week, but it was Carolina’s failure to score a touchdown that haunted them in a 28-27 loss.
“Offensively, we shot ourselves in the foot too many times: killed drives, kicked field goals instead of putting the ball in the end zone and that’s going to come back and hurt you,” North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said.
The Tar Heels might be without star tailback Giovani Bernard – who was a late scratch against Wake – again this week. His backups, A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, did a more than capable job in his absence. But Bernard is a special player, as he showed last year against Louisville. Carolina won a defensive battle 14-7, and Bernard had 123 of their 264 total offensive yards.
The Cardinals have been impressive, thumping in-state rival Kentucky in the opener 32-14 and dispatching Missouri State 35-7 last week. And their defense will be a challenge for the Tar Heels again this year. Five of Louisville’s top seven tacklers from a year ago are back, and the defense has allowed just 21 points through two games and 311.0 yards per game.
The biggest matchup problem for the Tar Heels is Louisville’s passing offense (led by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater) against UNC’s secondary, particularly after the way Wake sliced and diced Carolina’s pass defense in a 28-27 win for much of the game. Like Wake, Louisville’s offense doesn’t get a ton of big plays, but can when necessary. The Cardinals are capable of getting yardage in chunks and have a nearly ten-minute time of possession advantage over opponents.
But Fedora isn’t necessarily concerned with time of possession. The Tar Heels have run 13 more plays than their opponents despite a 7-minute deficit in time of possession. But he was concerned when he heard his defense had 25 missed assignments against Wake. “When you have missed assignments and you start giving up plays because you’re not where you’re supposed to be, it definitely affected our mental makeup on that side of the ball, and that wasn’t good,” Fedora said.
Louisville will feature the best rushing attack Carolina has faced. Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright have combined for 329 yards on 67 carries, averaging 4.9 per rush despite just two rushes of 20 or more yards. But Carolina has a stout defensive front that is capable of stopping the run: the Tar Heels have allowed just 53 rushing yards per game and held Wake’s ground game relatively in check. It’s the 295.0 passing yards allowed.
And that will be the issue. Bridgewater improved as last season progressed and has started off this year on a tear, completing 49-of-60 passes for 576 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s mobile enough to evade the rush, and frankly, the Tar Heels are going to have to find a pass rush of any kind to have a chance.
“(Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price) had two weeks to throw back there,” UNC defensive tackle Sylvester Williams said. “I told my guys on the d-line, we’ve got to be better next week. We’ve got to be better from here on out.”
The mistakes and missed opportunities in that loss to Wake Forest clearly still stings, but the Tar Heels have to make sure the loss doesn’t “beat them twice”, as Fedora put it. “It’s gone. It’s over with,” Fedora said. “The thing we’ve got to do is learn from the mistakes that we made so that we don’t make them again.”
Mascot facts: Louisville adopted the cardinal mascot in 1913, mainly because it’s the state bird of Kentucky. Wow, a mascot that makes sense! They jokingly call him “Louie” because of how “Louisville” is often mispronounced.
Prediction: Louisville, 34-24. With or without Bernard, North Carolina showed last week what its biggest issue will be this season: defense. Now, the Tar Heels will face a team that can run the ball well and throw it well (and efficiently) when necessary. Even worse, they’re facing a quarterback that is playing with a lot of confidence and can move around to avoid pressure.
North Carolina (1-0) at Wake Forest (1-0)
Larry Fedora lives and breathes football, and doesn’t seem to care about anything extraneous. He doesn’t always know how to pronounce names. He’s not too into PR: he readily admitted he had no idea where Elon was last week. His North Carolina team is ineligible for postseason play this year, but there’s still a chance the ACC would allow them claim a Coastal Division crown (should they win it). He could still sweep their next four in-state opponents, starting this week at Wake Forest.
Somehow, Fedora and the Tar Heels have managed to block out all the distractions that have swirled incessantly around the team since late 2009. It’s likely at least in part due to Fedora’s simple approach: control what you can control. This week, he was asked what he thinks about the new kickoff rule where all touchbacks go out to the 25-yard line.
“Uh…I don’t know,” Fedora said. “I guess it’s all right. I don’t put a lot of thought into whether I like something or not. This is what the rule is, so here we go. My mind automatically starts, okay, how am I going to take advantage of the rule is now?” He’s not a big fan of the helmet rule either, but he quickly added, “It really doesn’t matter if I like it.”
The rules are the rules, both from the NCAA to Fedora and from Fedora to his team. It’s not a democracy. As coaches say far too often, it is what it is. North Carolina can’t play in the ACC title game, the stated goal of every team in the league entering the season. They can’t go to a bowl.
But they can run a fast-paced offense (the Tar Heels ran 63 plays through the first three quarters last Saturday). And it can run even faster. Quarterback Bryn Renner blamed himself for that. “I watched Oregon play (Saturday) night after the game and I was embarrassed because we weren’t going as fast as them,” Renner said (the Ducks ran 96 plays).
“I got caught looking a couple of times and that got exploited on film from Coach Fedora and (offensive coordinator Blake) Anderson, so I got an earful and I won’t let that happen again. I kind of let the team down in that regard of not pushing the tempo. It’s like fast-break offense. We’ve got to get up and call the next play and that starts with me.
“I can’t be a spectator – I might as well just buy a ticket.”
Hard to blame him for marveling at tailback Giovani Bernard, who racked up 203 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns on just 13 touches. He returned punts for the first time in his career, something that has made North Carolina fans nervous about a potential injury.
Bernard was nervous on his first return, so he made a fair catch. On the second, he took it 30 yards and was starting to feel comfortable. His third attempt came in the second quarter. As he got ready to take the field, Fedora – who is in charge of the punt return unit – approached him on the sideline. “(Fedora) was like, ‘You know what? You could take this back if you want,’ jokingly,” Bernard said. “And I was like, ‘You know what? Watch this.’”
Bernard and his teammates are oozing confidence right now. Sure, they have nothing to lose. But they have plenty to gain. He can win individual accolades, which he would assuredly welcome. But they want to prove themselves as a unit. They understand that some of their numbers against Elon were dismissed because of the opponent, and they want to show the offense works against anyone.
“We just want to show everybody that we can play with the top dogs and not just Elon, not just smaller schools. We want to show everybody that we can do it against big schools,” Bernard said. “We’ve still got things that we want to fix up. But we’re going into every game and we’re hungry. We really just want to show everybody that we are that top-notch type of team.”
With a 1-0 start with 11 to go (and four more in-state opponents), they’re ready for Round 2 at Wake Forest. “That’s one of the goals of this football team is to do (win a state championship),” Fedora said. “This is the second one. It’s very, very important and our guys understand the importance of it.”
Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe is 30-8 against in-state teams (20-0 against all in-state foes except North Carolina and NC State). But Grobe is 4-3 against the Tar Heels and has lost two straight. Still, with Grobe getting improbable wins over more talented teams every year, this won’t be an easy game for the Tar Heels.
Wake squeaked by Liberty with a 20-17 win, and Grobe will have his team’s full attention. But Fedora showed in Week 1’s crisp performance that he has his team’s attention, too.
“It’s the next game. It’s the next opportunity. That’s the culture that we’re trying to establish. It doesn’t matter who you play or when you play them, where you play them, what time you play them, it’s the next opportunity,” Fedora said.
Random mascot facts: Since we profiled the Demon Deacon last week, it’s time for Rameses. UNC has kept a live ram since 1924, and as happens with live mascots, this one has been kidnapped a time or two. The most famous incident was in the 1970s when East Carolina students took him prior to a UNC Homecoming game. He lived in a frat house for a week and was released at the game painted purple and gold.
Prediction: North Carolina, 37-19. The Tar Heels weren’t just impressive last week because they scored 62 points, or even because they didn’t allow any. Their execution was crisp on offense, defense and special teams and they committed just three penalties. Particularly considering they spent the off-season installing new schemes, that’s remarkable. Wake will play better than it did against Liberty. North Carolina will have to make sure they shut down Wake Forest wideout Michael Campanaro and make quarterback Tanner Price uncomfortable. But the Deacons’ offensive line looked shaky at best, and their defense will have to win the day. If the Tar Heels execute as well as they did last week, they should pass their first road test.
Junior quarterback Bryn Renner has been known to ride the proverbial emotional rollercoaster with the best of them. When he threw one of his 13 interceptions, his anger at himself was visible minutes later as he paced the sideline. But when he completed a long pass for a touchdown, his jubilation would be just as obvious as he fist-pumped and jumped into the waiting arms of his teammates with a big grin on his face.
His statistics often reflected his mercurial nature. In a home win over Wake Forest, Renner completed 21-of-28 passes for 338 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The very next weekend at NC State, he completed just 9-of-17 passes for 76 yards and two interceptions.
Those two defenses were very different, but when Renner was brimming with confidence, he was difficult to stop. The NC State game was one of the first times that the pain Renner was feeling in his ankle showed on his face, and ended up leaving the game with a concussion.
And in the spring, coming off of surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle, he tried too hard to impress new head coach Larry Fedora. “Until the spring game, I practiced like crap to be honest. I was terrible during the spring. As far as health-wise, trying to get the playbook down, it was a transition for me. But until the spring game, I practiced like crap and (the coaches) were probably saying the same thing.
“You get a new boss, so you want to go out there – if you had a regular job, you’re always going to want to impress the boss and make sure he knows you’re the right guy for the job. I put a little to much pressure on myself and I just didn’t come in and play my game.”
Renner has always been known as a gunslinger. But he also knows that in order for this team to be successful, he has to take better care of the ball. He completed 42 of his first 49 pass attempts last season, but four of those incompletions were interceptions. In Carolina’s seven wins, Renner threw 16 touchdowns to five interceptions. In six losses, he threw ten touchdowns and eight picks.
At times, it was like he wanted to push the limits of his own talent, trusting it sometimes even above his own better judgment. Now, he knows better. “I’ve got to be a game manager and protect the football first and foremost. If I do that, I think we’ve got enough skill players and enough talent around me to be a good football team,” Renner said.
“Obviously, the offense is only going to go as far as (Renner will) take us, or as far as he’s willing to take us. I know this…that guy’s got a lot of fire in him,” Fedora said. “He’s got a lot of want-to. So we’re going to be fine.”
Sophomore tailback Giovani Bernard will help that Carolina offense run smoothly, as will a very experienced offensive line (anchored by a preseason All-America selection at right guard, Jonathan Cooper). How good the wide receivers will be remains a mystery, but Carolina will have plenty of pass-catchers with a solid group of tight ends and backs. Fedora will implement his spread offense, but some pro-style elements likely will remain.
The Carolina defense, though, could struggle. Dan Disch and Vic Koenning are co-defensive coordinators, and the duo have implemented a 4-2-5 defense. The Tar Heels have two elite defenders in nose tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick, and there are solid starters in both of those units.
While the secondary has experience returning, that’s not necessarily a good thing; Carolina’s pass defense was atrocious last season. The Tar Heels can only hope that Tre Boston’s move back to safety benefits the talented junior. Jabari Price and Tim Scott both started last season and showed flashes.
Elon likely won’t test Carolina’s secondary much, but a Week 2 trip to Wake Forest certainly will. The Elon game will gave everyone an indication of how far the Tar Heels have come on both sides of the ball in learning the new schemes.
Season Prediction: 8-4 (5-3). Carolina’s schedule is easy enough; a road game at Louisville will be tough, and Virginia Tech at home seems like a loss. It’s tough to know what exactly to expect with this team. Everything will be new. Still, Fedora’s enthusiasm combined with the talent remaining on this team (particularly offensively) should be enough for Carolina’s third 8-4 regular-season finish in the last four seasons. The Tar Heels seem like the type of team that might beat a team that is better than they are on paper (like an NC State) and lose to a team they should arguably beat (like Duke). But considering Carolina’s penchant for 8-4 finishes (and its relatively easy ACC schedule) 8-4 seems reasonable.