UNC Faces Tough Test Against Louisville Offense

CHAPEL HILL - John Bunting approaches Saturday's game against No. 24 Louisville with guarded optimism.

He readily admits North Carolina (2-1) played its best defensive game since Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims were sacking quarterbacks and dragging down runners in the backfield here in 2001. But few, Bunting included, really know what to expect from the defense this weekend.

Unlike Georgia Tech, Louisville will spread the Tar Heels out with four and five wide receiver sets, making closing time a top priority. It's still unclear if North Carolina has adequate speed or enough experience on defense to close quickly enough or take proper angles to avoid giving up the big play.

"Let's not get carried away," Bunting said about his defense, which gave up just 13 points against the Yellow Jackets while still allowing close to 400 yards. "We improved, but not even close to where we've got to be to be a competitive defense."

Bunting did agree that one by-product of last weekend's game was more confidence from a unit that was in need of a lift after getting steamrolled at Virginia.

"The players saw how they did improve with hard work and good preparation," Bunting said. "Let's give it another shot. Let's do it again. Once you do some things right you hope that you can have some instant recall.

"We've playing an offense this week that is very multiple, very versatile," Bunting added. "They have tons of different personnel changes. A lot of things we may practice we may not even see, and they'll have something new."

Louisville has had an extra week to prepare for UNC after its game last weekend at Tulane was called off because of Hurricane Ivan.

"Who knows what we'll see," Bunting said. "There are a lot of different pictures they'll present to us."

Bunting was pleased to see more urgency last week from a defense that has often be slow to line up properly.

"There weren't as many guys running around at the last second when the ball is being snapped," he said. "We also made the proper fits and we gave up just one explosive play. If we keep doing that we have to a chance to get better each week."

Bunting made a point to praise his defensive line, saying he was "fired up" by its performance, and said linebacker Fred Sparkman and cornerback Jacoby Watkins played their best games so far in a North Carolina uniform.

Sparkman, a sophomore from Columbia, Tenn., leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in tackles, while Watkins, a sophomore from Laurinburg, picked off two passes against Georgia Tech. The two are evidence of some of North Carolina's young talent on defense.

Still, Bunting says both are far from being polished products.

"Fred has taken over at the middle linebacker position," Bunting said. "That's something we hoped he would do this year. He's got speed, he's got some size, he's got some power. There were some plays that were very good that he made and there were some other plays where he didn't get it done. We've got to get that fixed this week or it's going to be a long day Saturday."

Meanwhile, Watkins says he's anxious to take on Louisville's talented group of receivers.

"It's always great to win," Watkins said. "Everybody has a smile on their face. Everybody is anxious to go this week.

"This is a fun game for the secondary," he added. "These are the games you dream about, for an offense to just come out and throw it around. It's a chance to get a few more interceptions and a few more turnovers."

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