The UNC defense began as if it would be business as usual. After the offense stalled quickly on their first possession, the Yellow Jacket offense marched 82 yards. Then a funny thing happened on the way to yet another dismal defensive performance – the defense stiffened and forced a field goal. Not exactly a stunning development, but at least a bit encouraging.
North Carolina's next two possessions ended in interceptions. The first one occurred on their own 31-yard line, giving the Tech offense a short-field to work with. Again, the defense forced a field goal. The next interception occurred after only three more offensive plays, but the defense forced a punt. Something strange was going on.
The North Carolina offense had only managed to hold on to the ball for a total of eleven plays and the first quarter was nearly over. But the Tar Heels only trailed by six points. The Tech offense wouldn't score again in the first half. The only offensive points came on a 1-yard drive, as the special teams forced a fumble. Incredibly, the Heels went into the locker room up by a point.
As the UNC offense began to find its rhythm in the second half, the defense gave up some yardage, but only seven more points, the fewest number of points yielded by a Tar Heel defense since their Peach Bowl victory over Auburn on New Year's Eve in 2001. If you are keeping score at home, that was 25 games ago.
There were several defensive players that stepped to the fore. Jacoby Watkins will get some headlines, though overall Fred Sparkman may have been the key to a lot of the apparent defensive improvement. The play of Melik Brown, Kareen Taylor, Mahlon Carey, and several other defensive players provided some promise for the future.
The Tar Heels defense could emerge from this game with greatly increased confidence in themselves, their schemes, and their coaches. That confidence will be tested against teams that UNC cannot expect to be as user-friendly as the Tech offense was Saturday night.
After sputtering and coughing up the football through the first half, the Tar Heel offense awoke in the second half, scoring touchdowns on its first three possessions.
For once, it wasn't just Darian Durant carrying the offense on his back. On their first drive, Jacque Lewis torched the Tech defense on a run of 40 yards, down to the one-yard line, and then a play later took it in for a touchdown.
On their next drive, Lewis again broke off a big run, this time for 34 yards. On the next play, he got 17 more yards. Durant, finally in position to only have to be a part of the offense, completed a 15-yarder to Jesse Holley. Lewis went in from the five, and the Heels were up, 21-6.
After Tech closed the gap to 21-13, this time Chad Scott helped carry the load for the UNC offense. Durant completed an 11-yarder to Jesse Holley, then connected on a 41-yard touchdown bomb to Adarius Bowman. The Heels would coast in from there, punctuating their victory with a defensive score as Hilee Taylor sacked Reggie Ball, stripped the ball away, and streaked into the end zone, provoking the aforementioned spontaneous celebration.
It wasn't the finest performance of the North Carolina offense in the past 25 games, but for once, it didn't have to be to get a win.
Special Teams and Other Notes
As noted by Bunting in his post-game interview, kicking the ball out of the end zone is the best kickoff coverage in the business. David Woolridge had a career night, though his stats are just average. His hang time was stellar, giving punt coverage teams ample time to down Tech returners.
Mike Mason, though he has yet to emerge in the Tar Heel offense, provided good field position on kickoff returns, garnering 104 yards on three returns.
No review of this game deserves to close without mention of turnover margin. The Tar Heels started five possessions as the result of Georgia Tech turnovers. Though they had a couple of turnovers themselves, they were plus three in turnover margin.
Lots of UNC fans will be asking this week if the improvement of the defense is real, or just a lucky alignment of the stars. They won't be kept guessing for long.
The University of Louisville, possessing a head coach known for his offensive prowess in Bobby Petrino, a quarterback that broke scores of Louisville records a year ago in Stephan LeFors, and a supporting cast of talented skill players, invades Kenan Stadium.