Last week’s blowout of Elon gave Tar Heel fans plenty of reasons to be optimistic heading into our first ACC showdown against Wake Forest last Saturday. The Phoenix certainly aren’t a college football powerhouse, but UNC still excelled in all three phases of the game. The offense played well, scoring with relative ease in putting up our highest point total since Mack Brown was head coach; the special teams were a revelation, with the electric Gio Bernard taking a punt return back 70 yards for a touchdown; and the defense posted a shutout for the first time since blanking Duke back in 1999. Students were truly excited about the football team for the first time in my tenure at UNC, and taking on a Demon Deacons team that struggled to put away FCS-school Liberty last week seemed to be the perfect recipe to keep the excitement level high.

The rain delay that pushed back kickoff by more than an hour and the news that Gio Bernard was being held out due to a knee injury quickly put a damper on my mood, though. The Tar Heels turned in a frustratingly inconsistent performance on both sides of the ball, demonstrating at various times just how good and how bad we can be. The major takeaways from the tough loss to Wake are below.

The Positives:

1. Early Offense:

  • Larry Fedora’s Fed Spread seemed to be clicking early on. A particularly memorable sequence involved a 28-yard AJ Blue rush followed immediately by a big completion to Eric Ebron down the middle of the field, and then eventually another acrobatic grab bv Ebron for the touchdown to take the lead. The “No Huddle, No Mercy” moniker is incredibly apt; forget about having no mercy on the defense, I didn’t even have time to respond to texts regarding the Tar Heels’ drive.

2. Running Back-Ups:

  • AJ Blue and Romar Morris filled in admirably for Giovanni Bernard, rushing for a combined 176 yards on 33 carries. Both showed some playmaking ability and explosive bursts at times, which is encouraging given that no one really knows the prognosis of Gio’s injury.

3. Tremendous Turnover:

  • Tim Scott’s interception just after a UNC touchdown tied the game at 21 was a huge momentum-shifter and just a beautiful play. The front seven didn’t bite on the play-fake by Tanner Price, got good pressure, and Scott jumped in front of the throw and took it back to Wake’s 8-yard line. The energy of the players after the pick was palpable through the TV. If you had polled Tar Heel fans after that play, I think most would have said that we would end up winning.

4. “Special” Special Teams Plays:

  • Kevin Reddick had tremendous coverage on a punt with about seven minutes left in the game, bringing down Campanaro and pinning the Deacs inside their 10-yard line down six. It’s one of those plays that get lost in the shuffle when you lose, but had we been able to come up with a quick stop on the ensuing Wake Forest drive, it would have been one of the key moments in the contest. Also, Casey Barth hit two field goals to pass his brother Connor for the all-time UNC record for field goals made. Unfortunate that it couldn’t have come in a win, but it was still a nice moment for a fan-favorite.

The Not-So-Positives:

1. Concussive Forces:

  • With the offense driving again midway through the second quarter, Renner attempted to scramble in for a touchdown and got absolutely obliterated by a Wake defender. The slow motion replay showed Renner turn toward the bench, point at his head, and then collapse onto the ground before being examined by trainers. On the hit, my roommate and I immediately turned to each other and said, “He’s concussed.” The cameras later panned to Renner talking on the sideline phone with a goofy grin on his face, and I assumed there was no way he could return to the game. Given that UNC is an institution at the forefront of sports concussion research, I felt stunned when Renner was out on the field for the next series. It was soon clear that Renner was not 100%, as on consecutive plays he took a sack, missed a throw, and then fumbled on another sack. With the quick decision-making and on-field adjustments needed in Fedora’s offense, if the quarterback isn’t completely focused mentally, the offense isn’t going to work effectively. While he looked better after halftime, Renner still fumbled a snap, missed a number of throws and looked somewhat out of sorts, especially on the second-to-last drive of the game. In a weird way, I hope that Bryn was simply playing poorly, because I don’t want to believe that the coaching staff would put him in if he had any sort of head injury.

2. Defen-sieve Effort:

  • The Heels struggled to get pressure all day on Tanner Price, generating just one sack and very few quarterback hurries against an inexperienced offensive line that has been hit fairly hard by injuries. This enabled Price to find his receivers, rather, receiver, for big gains; Michael Campanaro was a one-man wrecking crew, catching 13 balls for 164 yards. With no other Wake player catching more than 4 passes and their running backs combining for just 64 yards on the ground, it seems like Campanaro really should have been the focus of the defensive gameplan. Instead, #3 ran free through the secondary and Wake was able to punch the ball in for a touchdown on each of the four possessions that they reached the red zone. It’s true that Fedora’s defensive system is predicated on generating turnovers more than limiting yardage by forcing three and outs, but the Tar Heels had trouble doing both on Saturday.

3. Perplexing Penalties:

  • UNC was called for 8 penalties, incurring 87 yards of damage. It would be one thing if they were false starts as a result of a raucous crowd, but several were simply inexcusable, bonehead plays. A running into the kicker penalty permitted Wake another shot to add a field goal just before halftime, and a horse collar tackle gave Wake a first down on what had been a third down stop. Additionally, two personal fouls were called against the Heels on special teams plays, including one on the kickoff return after Wake scored to take the lead with two minutes left, which forced the offense to start on its own 13-yard line. Those are the kinds of avoidable penalties that make fans wring their hands in frustration, and are ones that I’m sure Coach Fedora will be addressing before the Heels head to Louisville next week for what will likely be an even tougher matchup.