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Turner's Take: Passion Project

Turner's Take: Passion Project

By Turner Walston

Credit East Carolina for smacking the North Carolina Tar Heels in the mouth on Saturday. The Pirates sailed into Kenan Stadium and gave no quarter to the home team, handing Carolina a 55-31 loss, the program’s worst since 2008 and the first at home to ECU since 1975. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley solved the Tar Heel defense like a Monday sudoku, and the Carolina attack was tentative early and played behind for the entire game.

Larry Fedora didn’t have many answers immediately following the loss. He said he’d need to watch the game film to understand exactly what had happened. “It’s hard for me to tell what went wrong when everything went wrong,” he said.

Indeed, the numbers are staggering. East Carolina ran an eye-popping 101 plays from scrimmage, the most ever against the Tar Heels. The Pirates gained 603 yards, meaning on average, every time they snapped the ball, they gained better than six yards. If you’re moving the ball that well, why not snap it as much as possible? East Carolina punted once each in the first two quarters, and that was it. On 13 possessions they scored seven touchdowns and two field goals, threw one interception punted twice, and officially turned the ball over on downs as time expired in the game. Excepting that final snap, the Pirates were a perfect 3-3 on fourth down attempts.

Carolina coaches charted 21 missed tackles after last weekend’s loss at Georgia Tech, and you’d have to expect that the staff will be disappointed in that category when grading Saturday’s film. ECU tailback Vontavious Cooper had an outstanding day, gaining 186 yards on the ground and 70 through the air. And he did a terrific job keeping his feet and churning for extra yards after contact from Tar Heel defenders. Pirate quarterback Shane Carden was responsible for six of his team’s seven touchdowns, tossing three scoring passes and running for three scores himself. 

The Tar Heel offense didn’t snap the ball inside the red zone until late in the first quarter and even then only managed a field goal after starting 1st and goal at the ECU 6. Quarterback Bryn Renner looked uncharacteristically ‘off’ at the game’s beginning. Still, playing without Sean Tapley and Romar Morris, the Tar Heels put 31 points on the board. Carolina crawled within 14 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but the defense could not get a stop and get off the field.

Carolina’s defense, which conditions with and scrimmages all spring and summer against the up-tempo Tar Heel offense, was finding itself confused and out of place against the Pirates. “We should be ready for that,” linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “We know they’re a tempo team, but give them credit. They got up to the line and they were moving the ball and they tempoed us fast. Hats off to them.”

The most troubling aspect of Saturday’s game was not the numbers put up by the Pirates. It wasn’t the missed tackles, and it wasn’t the continued lack of a formidable rushing attack. East Carolina deserved to win on Saturday, but what Fedora said after the game pointed to a problem with ramifications beyond a single game. “I know this,” he said. “You’ve got to play the game with passion. You’ve got to play it with enthusiasm. You’ve got to play it with energy, no matter what happens. It doesn’t matter what happens. You can’t let one play affect the next play, and we obviously don’t have that right now.”

Carolina entered Saturday’s contest with East Carolina at 1-2 and 0-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the exact same record they carried into the game with the Pirates in 2012. Those Tar Heels beat ECU 27-6 and reeled off four wins in a row, including victories over Virginia Tech and Miami. These Tar Heels looked listless at times as the visitors went up and down the field. 

“There could have been a little more intensity on our side,” senior defensive end Kareem Martin. “[East Carolina] came out really intense. It meant a lot to them, and I think our guys underestimated them as an opponent early on, and by the time we tried to strap it up, their intensity was still high, and it was a little too late.”

Tailback A.J. Blue’s assessment was harsher. “The second we strapped up our cleats and our pads, certain guys knew that they weren’t going to give it 100 percent out there today and that probably comes form lack of focus, lack of preparation and I think guys were kind of complacent today,” he said. The players were aware of the program’s historical success against the Pirates, he said, and may have not taken the opponent seriously. “That kind of carried over in some guys’ minds, and that was the mindset of the team, and it hurt us today.”

Blue, who handled the bulk of the carries with Morris out, said too often the team is waiting on one player to make a play, when they ought to find it within themselves to make something happen. “The second you strap up your pads, you know if you’re going to give it 100 percent or not,” he said. “I think the lack of focus and the lack of preparation is the reason why we didn’t have energy and passion today.”

Saturday’s loss was a bad one, but it’s done. The Tar Heels stand at 1-3 with a difficult stretch ahead - on the road at Virginia Tech and at home against Miami on Thursday October 17. Martin was already looking forward to getting back to ACC play. The team’s goal of a Coastal Division championship is not out of reach, but it remains to be seen whether this team can turn on the passion and energy required to compete in the conference title race.

If A.J. Blue has anything to do with it, the Tar Heels will find a way to bounce back. The player who has been through so much to be on the field at all - he spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy before reaching Chapel Hill and then suffered a devastating knee injury in 2009 - is intent on bringing his team together. “We’ve got to be there for each other,” he said. “The lack of being my brother’s keeper is the reason why we’re 1-3 right now.”

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