Extra Points: Bulls Eye
by Lee Pace, GoHeels.com
That sound you heard emanating from Kenan Stadium about 4 p.m. Saturday was not the well or the bell or the stone walls, not the last strains of "The Tag" nor the grunts and pops of head-on football collisions. It was the whoosh of a collective sigh of relief from Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora and his assistants after their team successfully dispatched a Middle Tennessee squad that ranks high on the danger meter but low on perception gauge for brawny football rivals.
That a mature program in the eighth year under head coach Rick Stockstill had beaten Maryland in 2008 just weeks before the Terrapins beat Carolina or had soundly hammered Georgia Tech last fall two months before Tech posted that infamous 68-spot on the Tar Heels had gone largely undetected by those expecting a yawning non-conference affair against a school with a directional appellation to its name.
How do you spell relief? A score of 40-20 with only one of the opponent's touchdowns coming against the first-team defense will do the trick.
"A big win, for sure," said offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, one of four Tar Heel coaches with some history at the Murfeesboro, Tenn., school. "Their tradition has always been scrappy, high-effort, great team speed. They were a lot better than you'd want to see coming off a loss to South Carolina. Year after year, they go on the road and play Alabama, Missouri, Clemson, Georgia, anyone they can find to pay the bills. And they believe they can beat everyone they play. Just ask Georgia Tech."
Mack Brown lost at home to Navy in his second year in 1989 and John Bunting fell to Miami (Ohio) in his second year as the Tar Heel coach in 2002, and Fedora wanted to avoid a similar sophomore jinx in an early season home game before the rigors of conference play commenced.
Now two games into the 2013 season, the Tar Heels are exactly where you'd have expected them to be--a loss on the road to a nationally ranked South Carolina team and a solid victory at home over a Conference USA opponent. They have a week off before traveling to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech in two weeks.
"It's good to get a win, especially here in the Tar Pit in front of our fans," Fedora said. "Our players deserved to have some fun today. We work extremely hard. We're going to outwork people, and then you get an opportunity to have some fun on Saturdays."
The fun came on offense, where the Tar Heels unleashed a handful of gadgets and tricks. They used a snap-count ruse on their second possession, with center Russell Bodine drawing the Blue Raiders offside an instant before Renner connected with Mark McNeill for 59-yard gain on what was essentially a "free play." They handed off to freshman Ryan Switzer on an end-around that was quickly snuffed by the Blue Raiders for a loss, but rest assured you will see some iteration of that play hit the jackpot later this fall. And they hit tight end Jack Tabb for 30 yards down the middle after Renner's pump fake sold Middle Tennessee on a quick out-pattern.
Another delicious piece of tomfoolery that merited a B-Plus in execution was a second-quarter double-pass. After the shotgun snap to QB Marquise Williams, five offensive linemen take a step to their right and then flop to the ground, in the direction of a quick pass from Williams to A.J. Blue on the right flank.
"We want the defensive line to think they're getting cut-blocked and pursue to their left, which is exactly what happened," Anderson said.
The O-linemen bounce up and fold in the other direction, and Blue throws the ball back across the field to Williams, who has a beautiful wall of beefy blockers set up ahead of him in front of the Carolina bench. This one could have been huge.
Problem was, guard Landon Turner accidently overran Bodine and both players fell to the ground, eliminating two blockers. Williams gained 23 yards anyway, but Turner or Bodine if running proper interference could have cleared some additional pathway.
"We have a few trick plays every week," Anderson said. "We told the fans we're not going to be boring, and the kids love it. It breaks the monotony and we have fun with it."
And the Tar Heels got some rock-ribbed football plays as well, like Romar Morris's 26-yard run for Carolina's first score of the game. He took a toss from Renner on an outside zone play, ran left, rode a terrific cut block from Sean Tapley in turning the corner and then juked a Middle Tennessee safety and had clear sailing to the end zone.
"Tap's block sprung the play," Anderson said. "Without that, it's a one-yard gain, maybe. Tap had a great game, some super catches. But I was happier with that block than anything he did all day. Then Romar made a guy miss. We didn't do that at South Carolina, we had no explosive plays and hardly any yards after contact. We need more of that if we're going to be good on offense."
Still, the Tar Heel offense wheezed and stuttered at times, finding it difficult to grind out those difficult yards inside the five yard-line and notching only 3.3 yards on average per running play.
"I didn't feel like we ever got into a good rhythm offensively," Fedora said. "I don't think we ran the ball very well, and that's a concern for me."
"We had some of the same issues we had at South Carolina--we'd get a penalty, we'd give up a sack," Anderson said. "We have a lot of things to clean up, but it was step in the right direction. Switzer fumbled it away, but he had a bunch of touches today and I'd rather have things happen now than in conference play."
The Tar Heel defense had fun stopping the Blue Raiders at the one yard-line on the game's first possession and proceeding to notch three 3-and-out possessions in the first half and intercept three passes in the game. Bandits Norkeithus Otis and Darius Lipford are providing the Tar Heels some speed and agility on the perimeter that they haven't had in some time, and Travis Hughes at weakside linebacker is beginning to evolve in his first year as a starter. All three were high-profile signees during the last two Butch Davis recruiting classes in 2010 and '11 (Lipford's finalists beyond Carolina were Clemson and Tennessee, Otis's were LSU, Florida and Georgia Tech and Hughes' were Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami and Maryland) but various combinations of injuries, physical development and learning to play at a much more competitive level impeded each of their progress. By contrast, Jeff Schoettmer walked-on from Texas two years ago, was awarded a scholarship in August and made the first hit on a crucial goal-line play on Saturday from his middle linebacker position.
"What I'm seeing is we have some guys who can do some stuff on the edge," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "We didn't have that year. We're going to start doing more stuff with Norkeithus, he's faster than anyone we've got. I did a lot with [Dallas Cowboys starter] DeMarcus Ware at Troy and we're going to start to do some of that with Norkeithus. He plays hard and has been explosive."
And the fun Fedora referenced extends to the kicking game as well. The Tar Heels have yet to break any returns, and the punt return unit has been blemished with two illegal blocking flags in two games, but the act of kicking the ball by three individuals has been quite solid. Tommy Hibbard is averaging 41.2 yards a punt with excellent hang times; Thomas Moore is 3-for-3 in field goals; and Nick Weiler has five touchbacks in 11 kick-offs.
Two games into 2013, there's much to like and much that unsettles the stomach, and most of the latter is connected to the fact that there are fewer than 70 recruited, scholarship players on this team and everyone else has a full load of close to 85, allowing for inevitable issues of short-term attrition. Accept that fact you'll understand why doubling up the score on Middle Tennessee was a good day's work.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (email@example.com) is now in his 24th year writing "Extra Points" and 10th reporting from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network. His unique look at Tar Heel football will appear weekly throughout the fall.