In what may have been another first, the 117th team in the nation in scoring offense met the 117th team in the nation in scoring defense. In this battle of the "worsts," the North Carolina defense won the day.
For a team allowing 520.6 yards a game to its previous opponents, the Tar Heels held East Carolina to 289 yards of total offense. Let's be honest about it, East Carolina's offense has been hapless this season, and Saturday was no exception. On the other hand, not too many pundits would have been shocked if the Pirates had rolled up 400 yards or more, as porous as the UNC defense has been this season.
True freshman Larry Edwards led the team in tackles for the second consecutive week. That must also be a first – for a true freshman to lead a UNC defense in tackles in his first two starts. Edwards' play, along with that of fellow true freshman Isaiah Thomas, who forced a crucial fumble in the fourth quarter, has been a breath of fresh air in the past two games.
The heralded freshmen are getting a lot of favorable press, but perhaps the most significant development on defense was the play of the defensive ends, especially the play of redshirt freshman Alden Blizzard. Blizzard recorded two sacks and three tackles for loss, easily the most productive day of a Tar Heel defensive end all season. Fellow defensive ends Madison Hedgecock and Tommy Davis also played well, combining for nine tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
Another Tar Heel defender recorded his best effort of the season, JuCo transfer Lionel Green. Though he was flagged for one (questionable) interference call, he was matched up against Terrance Copper for most the day and acquitted himself well.
Except for a couple a long drives fueled by the hard running of East Carolina tailback Marvin Townes in the first half, the defense did the job on Saturday. On six of its possessions in the game, the ECU offense was off the field after three plays.
Though the defensive effort came against the worst offensive team in NCAA Division 1-A, the signs of life for a much-maligned Tar Heel defense were on display on Saturday. Whether this was a "one-hit wonder," or something that can restore confidence to the Tar Heel defense for the remainder of the season remains to be seen.
The North Carolina offense has been productive in fits and starts all season. Last week, however, the Tar Heel offense was stymied by the Virginia defense and this week the offense again started out poorly.
Held scoreless through the first quarter, the Tar Heels scratched with a spectacular catch by true freshman Mike Mason early in the second. Late in the third quarter, an 82-yard drive came up empty as Dan Orner missed a 35-yard field goal attempt. The Tar Heels had driven the ball off their own one-yard line and had no points to show for it. The offense once again looked like it was dying from self-inflicted wounds.
Fortunately, the defense gave the ball back to the offense on the ensuing ECU possession, and the Tar Heels took the ball in on a 33-yard pass from Darian Durant to true freshman Jon Hamlett. However, the defense then yielded back a touchdown to the Pirates, giving up a 72-yard scoring drive, and the score stood at 21-17 with 8:11 to go in the game.
Perhaps even more than the outcome of the game hung in the balance when the offense took the field. A loss to the winless Pirates would create even more furor for embattled head coach John Bunting, and the prospect of a winless season would loom large on the horizon. Likely more than a few of the scribes on press row were preparing to write the obituary for the 2003 Tar Heels.
Senior offensive lineman Jeb Terry addressed his unit's team members before they took the field. "I told the guys it is time for the o-line to win a game," Terry said. "We had the opportunity to do that in the Syracuse game, multiple times in fact, and I just said it is time for the offense and o-line to win a game, it is time. Get you're a--es ready and let's go out and win the game."
That is exactly what the offensive line did, along with the Tar Heel tailbacks. An 11-play, 72-yard drive ensued, capped by the first rushing touchdown by a Tar Heel tailback all season when Ronnie McGill punched the ball in from the three-yard line with 2:16 to go in the game, giving the Heels an eleven point lead. Game over.
"How satisfying was that?" Bunting said. "That was unbelievable. Are you kidding me? I'm not even going to say how good I felt because it would be X-rated."
The offense wasn't hitting on all cylinders on Saturday, but in the end the defense gave them the opportunity to win the game.
Except for a penalty called on Mike Mason for "simultaneous contact" with a Pirate returner (again, a bit of a questionable call), and a missed chip shot field goal by Dan Orner, the UNC special teams again acquitted themselves well.
In particular, punter John Lafferty had a good day, averaging 39 yards per punt. The Tar Heels returned the ball well, and held the Pirates to minus five yards on punt returns.
For the year, the special teams have proven to be the most consistent unit of the team, and the Tar Heels need all the advantages they can get.
The Tar Heels return home to face the Arizona State Sun Devils, fresh off a shellacking of Oregon, 59-14. The fact that ASU is coming off their most impressive offensive outing of the season doesn't bode well for a team with defensive woes.