"Our kids played hard, our kids worked hard in a week of practice," head coach John Bunting said following the game. "I couldn't ask for them to do any more, except we just keep coaching them so they can really respond."
Looking back over the last two seasons and a half, there have been a considerable number of times when the Tar Heels looked lost and confused on defense. Against FSU, it almost seemed as though the defense knew what they were trying to accomplish, attempted to execute their plan, but just came up short against a superior team.
Obviously, there were breakdowns on defense. Most noticeably, the breakdowns occurred in the running game, punctuated by FSU tailback Leon Washington's two long gains, a 53-yarder and a 43-yarder. Those two runs accounted for 96 of the Seminoles' 248 yards of rushing.
There were mistakes against FSU's passing game as well, as Wyatt Sexton completed 20-of-31 pass attempts. Sexton tossed three touchdown passes and looked poised under center most of the afternoon. Lionell Green did record a pick against Sexton, his first interception as a Tar Heel.
On the plus side, the UNC defense allowed FSU to convert only five of fourteen third-down plays. While the Tar Heel defense isn't ever going to be confused with the Carolina Panthers, they also had better pressure on the FSU quarterback than they have had against any other opponent this year, save perhaps Georgia Tech.
It won't show up in the stat sheet, but it appeared that the youthful front four of the UNC defense showed a toughness--an attitude--that has been lacking in many previous games. The best illustration of that toughness might have come on a mistake by the defense, when Kyndraus Guy jumped off sides and drew a flag, knocking an FSU offensive lineman flat on his back. It was a mistake, no doubt, but one born of aggressiveness.
The attitude of some of UNC's younger players may be on the verge of becoming contagious. Tommy Davis, a junior who has not lit up the stat sheet in any of his previous starts at defensive end, had the best game of his career. He recorded a sack against FSU backup quarterback Drew Weatherford, had three tackles for loss, and notched seven tackles. In his first four starts of this year, Davis had only 14 tackles total.
There is a danger in making sweeping generalizations about any team based on their play in one game. This particularly holds true for this Tar Heel team, who could follow up what was a good effort against the Seminoles by reverting to past patterns next week against NC State. However, you get the feeling that the UNC defense is beginning to show signs of life.
The Florida State defense, it should be noted, is one of the best defenses in college football. The Tar Heel offense moved the ball well against this stellar defense, but demonstrated again two flaws that show up in virtually every contest.
In the first half, it appeared that the Tar Heels would go into the locker room down only 14-6, but Darian Durant tossed an interception while still on the UNC side of the fifty. The turnover resulted in another FSU touchdown, giving the Seminoles a 21-6 cushion at the half. The untimely turnover has been a consistent flaw in the Tar Heel offense.
The offense could have made the score look even more respectable at half, if not for their second most consistent flaw – a perplexing inability to score in the red zone.
The Tar Heels' second possession is an apt illustration of their seeming aversion to the opponent's end zone. Florida State had marched the ball 81 yards on 11 plays to take a 7-0 lead. North Carolina, fueled by some hard running by Jacque Lewis, and a 31-yard completion to Jarwarski Pollock, had first and goal at the FSU four-yard line. Two runs by Chad Scott resulted in only one net yard, and an incomplete pass from Durant to Adarius Bowman brought Connor Barth out on the field for a chip-shot field goal.
On three more occasions the Tar Heels would enter the FSU red zone, and came away with a total of six points on those possessions.
It may sound odd to be critical of an offense that gained a total of 363 yards against a defense that was only yielding 261 yards-per-game prior to this contest. But for a Tar Heel team desperately in need of wins, they have to find a way to get better in the red zone.
Special Team and Turnovers
Two special team miscues marred the Tar Heel performance on this unit. A poorly executed squib-kick following the first Tar Heel field goal gave the Seminoles possession on their own 33-yard line, their best field position following a Tar Heel score all day.
A blocked punt late in the fourth quarter didn't add to FSU's side of the scoreboard, but the Tar Heels can ill afford to add blocked punts to their repertoire of special team snafus.
The interception tossed by Durant late in the second quarter was, as noted above, a costly one. The Heels fumbled twice, but managed to cover their mistakes there, recovering them both.
Lionell Green's first career interception evened the turnover battle, and most Tar Heel fans would quickly settle for a wash in every game in this area.
Barth was reliable in his place-kicking duties, and showed the ability to get kickoffs deep – making the squib-kick call even more perplexing.
UNC faces a formidable challenge against the Wolfpack. The Tar Heels hosts a confident NC State team that has pulled off two close wins in a row, recently triumphing over Wake Forest, 27-21, in overtime.
T.A. McClendon is showing the form he displayed as a true freshman, and NCSU brings the toughest defense statistically in Div. I-A to Kenan Stadium.