Between The Lines

There were moments this Saturday against Wake Forest when it was possible to forget that head coach John Bunting was told just a week ago today that he is not returning in 2007, that the Tar Heels were 1-6, and that an intense coaching search for Bunting's replacement was underway. For a few moments on Saturday, it was just about football.

What Went Wrong

"We fight hard, we play hard, we prepare hard, and sometimes the football gods don't work in our favor," senior receiver Jesse Holley said following the game. Nothing could be more maddening than the Tar Heel penchant for turnovers, and to paraphrase Euripides, "Whom the football gods wish to destroy, they first cause to turn the ball over."

Abbate's INT
A blocked punt returned for a touchdown on the Tar Heels' first possession turned out to be the margin of victory. Wake Forest turned a fumble by Nick Starcevic – a close call that the football gods used to mock the Tar Heels - into the go-ahead score just one play later. On the final UNC play of the day, quarterback Joe Dailey tossed the Tar Heels' chances to send the game into overtime into the waiting hands of Wake Forest linebacker Jon Abbate.

Of course there were other culprits, but as much as any game UNC has played this year, the Tar Heels became an object lesson for what happens when you neglect the coaching maxim, "If you begin the play with the ball, finish the play with the ball." The cumulative effect of turnovers has earned UNC the type of notoriety no team likes to have - after having flirted with rock bottom in many statistical categories over the course of several years, the Tar Heels can now lay claim to being the absolute worst team in Division 1-A football – 119th out of 119 teams – in turnover margin.

That statistic goes as far as any to explain UNC's 1-7 record.

What Went Right

When the Tar Heels weren't gift-wrapping the ball for Wake Forest, they played much more like the team many expected to see from the start of the season. Offensively and defensively, the intensity and effort were there throughout the day.

When Wake Forest moved the ball, it was more often due to what Wake Forest was doing right than what North Carolina was doing wrong. There were lapses; missed tackles, missed assignments, a dropped pass or two, poor center exchanges, and other miscues too often associated with North Carolina football this season – but these lapses did not appear to be the result of lack of effort.

Ronnie McGill may not have hit his career-high in rushing yards, but he perhaps had the best game of his career – often picking up two-three-four yards after a less-determined back would have gone down.

The touchdown reception by Andre Barbour was an interesting play call and an interesting story as well. Barbour had just been moved to tight end this past week in practice, and he catches the first pass ever thrown his way for a touchdown. The Tar Heel offense was also very effective running the ball out of two-tight end sets with Barbour on the field.

True freshman wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, again Saturday, lived up to the accolades he has received. Nicks is a legitimate star-in-the-making, and only poor UNC quarterbacking has prevented him from being even more impressive. Brooks Foster seemed to regain some lost form on Saturday as well.

But individual efforts aside, the collective effort of the team as a whole enabled many North Carolina football fans to suspend all their doubts, concerns, and anguish about the state of the program for much of the afternoon. They were busy watching and enjoying a football game – and even teased by the football gods into believing, even if only for a moment, that the effort of the team would be rewarded with a "W."

While the payoff wasn't there, perhaps it reminded many what is possible when the Tar Heels match the intensity of their opponent.

What's Next

The Tar Heels travel to South Bend, Indiana to face 11th-ranked Notre Dame. The game shapes up as a study in contrasts – a resurgent Notre Dame program with a coach in his second year ratcheting up expectations of the media and legions of Notre Dame fans, and a UNC program in the throes of an awful season and whose head coach has been sacked and is simply coaching out the year. Notre Dame fields a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Brady Quinn, and the Tar Heels may not have a player named on the first or second All-ACC team.

Even if the Tar Heels give the same type of effort they displayed on Saturday, not even the football gods are capricious enough to ordain a Tar Heel victory against the Irish.

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