A Stunning Start
The cloud of controversy hovering over Carolina Football gave way to bright blue skies Saturday, as the Tar Heels kicked off the Larry Fedora era with an air of excitement and energy that could only have come from the new head coach.
The opponent was Elon of the Football Subdivision Southern Conference, so the results are hardly in on Fedora’s first UNC edition. But 62-zip against any college football team is a good show, representing the second-most points Carolina has ever scored on the gridiron and the first shutout since a 38-0 white-washing of dear old Duke in 1999.
It meant a couple of things, for sure. The Tar Heels had fought their way through execution problems in the spring learning Fedora’s fast break offense and defensive coordinator Dan Disch’s funky 4-2-5 formation. There were three inconsequential penalties, one a dubious false start call. They scored on 10 of their 15 possessions and went scoreless in the fourth quarter as Fedora just about emptied his sideline.
Had the regulars kept playing, Carolina might have reached a hundred and fans would have wondered if the Bojangles’ biscuit deal was in force for football as it is for basketball. The home team looked Fast, Smart and Physical, the slogan plastered everywhere including the game tickets. It’s the way Fedora wants his guys to play, and the Tar Heels proved good pupils in their first official attempt.
The Butch Davis days of wondering whether it was truly all for one and one for all appear over. Fedora’s fleet fleet has bought into the no huddle, 80-snaps-a-game mentality and the ameba-like defense that has two players moving from the line of scrimmage to the secondary, worrying the eye-grease off the opposing quarterback. It certainly won’t be this easy Saturday at Wake Forest in Fedora’s first ACC game, but the Heels will have fun trying.
Their execution was impressive for a first game of a season and a regime. Quarterback Bryn Renner looked far more comfortable running the hurry-up offense than he did in the spring, and his stats showed it: 14 of 21 and three TDs. His one pick came off a busted pattern as he hit the wrong guy right in the hands. Geo Bernard had one helluva 20 minutes before going out with a tweaked knee that Fedora said was only a precaution since the rout was on.
Gio took off his pads having already rushed for a 59-yard touchdown, caught another by air and returned a punt 70 yards to the house in the shadow of the Blue Zone. His three scores and nearly 300 all-purpose yards is a month’s work for most players, not a third of a game. If Bernard stays healthy, he’ll be the poster child for Fedora’s fast break philosophy.
The defense was almost as much fun to watch, with DT Sylvester Williams proving you can leave a stock room job to go to junior college and then become a first-round NFL draft prospect. His two tackles and 12-yard sack of Elon quarterback Thomas Wilson set the tone, although most of the stops came in the short secondary which allowed the Phoenix to move the ball reasonably well between the 30s and win the time of possession battle, if nothing else.
Six-foot cornerbacks Jabari Price and Tim Scott were all over the ever-moving defense, each intercepting a Wilson pass. Scott’s was an incredible athletic play as he dove to pick off a flare screen before the receiver knew what happened.
The Tar Heels’ ACC record 260 punt return yards were largely because Elon’s Kenton Beal averaged 44 yards on 10 kicks that were hit so deep that Bernard and Roy Smith had a 20-yard running start on most of them. Beal kept on booming them down the field like he was in some kind of contest instead of angling one or two out of bounds. Maybe he wanted to catch the eye of NFL scouts who were there to see a few Tar Heels and Elon senior WR Aaron Mellette who caught only two balls for 9 yards. UNC’s Williams and OTJonathan Cooper, Renner and linebacker Kevin Reddick are four guys who will wind up playing on Sunday, if Mallette won’t.
Fedora and his staff wore white shirts (one of the Carolina colors, by the way) probably to be seen more clearly in the sideline sea of blue by the players on the field. So it was easy to track the hyper-active head coach pacing the chalk, praising his troops and looking like he wanted to ring the neck of the culprits responsible for his team’s two turnovers – the bane of his coaching existence.
At halftime, leading 41-0, he asked his players to start the game over at 0-0. They did and won the third quarter 21-0 before Fedora called off the dogs and started running some clock. Thus, Carolina fell six snaps short of his goal of 80 per game, but most days Fedora won’t be able to give his team the fourth quarter off.
In a no-bowl season, this was the first of five games against in-state opponents, with the last the “championship” against N.C. State. If the Tar Heels can win them all, they can celebrate a pseudo state title that might make the probation more palpable. But let’s do take them one at a time.
Also at halftime, Jeff Fuchs and the UNC marching band paid tribute to the late great alumnus Andy Griffith with some of his theme music and mention of his best-selling comedy record of all-time, What It Was Was Football. Indeed it Was, but not quite like anything we’ve ever seen before on the field known as Kenan.
Show us more, Coach.