From Manning to Marquise: UNC’s Quarterback Gets a Much Needed Pep Talk

On the first day of training camp this past offseason, UNC senior quarterback Marquise Williams said his goal was to win the ACC Player of the Year award.

After his first start of the season strayed from the plan just a bit, Williams received an outpouring of support from an elite group of his peers—something that helped him get his mind, and his play, back on track heading into this week’s game against North Carolina A&T.

“Some great quarterbacks called me this past weekend, just to talk and tell me to move on,” Williams told reporters after practice on Tuesday. “I was excited, you know, just to hear from some of those guys. Those guys come back and they just tell you ‘Hey man, just play the game. Play the game the way you know how to play it.’”

Among those great signal-callers giving Williams some wisdom were the last two Tar Heel starters at the position, Bryn Renner and T.J. Yates. Both of those players have spent time at the professional level, but another quarterback who spent time talking with Williams is someone who has, in recent years, given Williams a job at his summer Passing Camps as a counselor.

Peyton Manning has had his fair share of setbacks on his way to a Hall-of-Fame career. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

Peyton Manning has had his fair share of setbacks on his way to a Hall-of-Fame career. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

He also happens to be one of the best to ever do it.

“And that’s Peyton Manning,” Williams said. “He gave me a text and told me to give him a call, and I did.

“I felt like it was over, man (after the loss). And it just felt like [I’d] lost everything. But when I [made] that call it was just like, man I’m back at it.”

During the twenty minutes the two spent on the phone, Manning asked Williams if he knew who holds the record for most interceptions (28) thrown by an NFL rookie.

“I’d assume that’s you,” Williams told the future Hall-of-Famer.

“You’re right, I still hold that record,” Manning replied.

That kind of reassurance is invaluable for a college player, especially coming from someone who’s not only seen it all over the years—but also a man who’s thrown plenty of crucial picks in big moments, coming away stronger each time.

If Williams follows Manning and the other quarterbacks’ advice and plays “his game”, then there may be a little bit more running in his future. He talked during training camp about making more of an effort to protect his body, but both of his back-breaking interceptions in the end zone against South Carolina came as a result of hesitation.

“There was times I wanted to run, but I didn’t—and I forced it,” Williams said. “I just gotta go out and play my game. Those guys, like they called me and said, ‘Just go play your game man, do what you were taught to do, and what you’ve been learning how to do.’”

If Williams is running, he's at his best--playing "his game" the way his quarterbacking peers have advised. (Photo: Daily Tar Heel)

If Williams is running, he’s at his best–playing “his game” the way his quarterbacking peers have advised. (Photo: Daily Tar Heel)

It’s worth noting that Manning, Renner, and Yates can each relate to Williams in their own ways, something UNC head coach Larry Fedora is extremely appreciative of.

“That’s gotta be a tremendous help,” Fedora said. “I can only say so much, I didn’t play the position. That position is pretty special.”

He then pointed out the toughest aspect of being a quarterback, which Williams is dealing with right now–saying, “You get too much credit when you win, and too much blame when you lose.”

In his role as a leader of the team, Williams’ mood is something that can trickle down to the rest of the players. Other great quarterbacks know that struggle, which is what made them reach out to Williams.

Williams may end up on the other side of the phone one day, helping some young fresh-faced Tar Heel quarterback facing the same issues—which is why his coach wants to make one thing clear.

“He’s got a lot of respect out there, he’s got a lot of respect on this football team,” Fedora said. “He just didn’t play as well as he wanted to the other night. It happens.”

A New Blue Dawn

Senior Day against Maryland was a pretty typical game for the 2012 Tar Heels. The Terrapins, perhaps motivated by the decision to leave the ACC in favor of the Big Ten, served as a mediocre but spirited opponent. Carolina fans had obvious reasons to be frustrated, as the Tar Heels repeatedly allowed big plays on the defensive side of the ball. The special teams performed particularly poorly, fumbling a kickoff return just before halftime to allow Maryland to take a 28-21 lead, and then gave up a touchdown on the kickoff to start the second half because they only had ten men on the field. The Tar Heels fought back in gritty fashion, though, with Bryn Renner throwing for two big touchdowns in the second half, leading to a 45-38 win. Overall, the defense was pretty bad (excepting one big interception on Maryland’s first drive), the offense was pretty good, Gio Bernard was brilliant (27 carries for 163 yards and a touchdown), there were some troubling mental mistakes…but the Tar Heels managed to emerge victorious. Sounds pretty familiar.

The inconsistency of the Tar Heels in any given game modeled their season as a whole. There were some clear highs this year: Gio Bernard’s late punt return touchdown to beat NC State for the first time in six tries, setting the record for points scored in a single game by a UNC squad in the 66-0 win over Idaho, four Tar Heels making 1st Team All-ACC (Bernard, Jonathan Cooper, Sylvester Williams, and Kevin Reddick), and winning the ACC’s Coastal Division on a tie-break over Miami (had either team actually been eligible to win anything). There were also some obvious lows: Losing to Duke for only the second time in 23 years, giving up a record 68 points at home against Georgia Tech on Homecoming, and getting blown out in the first half against Louisville come to mind most easily. It has been a season of unpredictability, to say the least, its meaning hard to define because of the postseason ban and the implementation of a totally new coaching scheme.

I’m really at a loss for words to describe how I feel about this team and this season. It happened. I was there, and I experienced the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it. Sure, we didn’t go to a bowl game or the conference title game. We didn’t go undefeated. But it was still special. Every season has its moments and memories that you will always carry with you, and this one was no different. Ultimately, I’m glad we’ve completely closed the door on the Butch Davis Era and can finally move forward as a team and university. There will be no bans, no asterisks, no drama as we look to next August. A new Blue Dawn, at last.

Heels Good Bet, Sort Of

LAS VEGAS – Well, when in Vegas . . . where gambling is legal.

After finishing our final Good Sports show on WCHL before the Maryland-Carolina game, I was intending to go to the hotel sports book and bet on the Tar Heels to cover the 24.5 point spread by which they were favored to beat the Terrapins.

Only, I waited too long, watching the end of the Virginia-Virginia Tech game, which I had bet on the Hokies to win by more than their 10.5 spread. Now I have another reason to hate the Gobblers. They couldn’t score more than 17 points on a UVa defense that had been giving up 35 to 40 in recent weeks.

Then, after watching UNC’s first half unfold, I was glad I did not get to the wager window on time. Despite Bryn Renner and Gio Bernard having their typical offensive days, the Tar Heels gave up long plays to a Maryland team quarterbacked by an ex-linebacker who looks like, well, a linebacker.

No. 31 had the paunch of an LB and was hard to bring down when he ran; the stocky lefty also had a surprisingly good arm for Maryland’s fourth-string quarterback after all the others got hurt for the future Big Ten member.

Maybe Maryland played Carolina so tough from the inspiration of its new destination. After all, the ACC has proven itself one of the most overrated leagues in college football history – witness Georgia Tech (at Georgia), Florida State (at home to Florida), Clemson (at home to South Carolina) and Wake Forest (at home to Vanderbilt) losing all four games convincingly against SEC foes Saturday.  Maryland, headed out of the ACC, looked very much alive for most of the late afternoon in Chapel Hill.

The Terps stayed with Carolina in the first half on one-handed catches, reverse passes and, amazingly, went ahead at the break on a one-play scoring drive following a fumbled kickoff by the shaken Heels.

By then, it was clear Carolina wasn’t going to win this game by 25 points, if winning the Senior Day home finale at all. So I was happy I had not bet on the game.

Up to that point, I had won money on the Patriots over the Jets Thursday night and never rooted harder for Duke to cover the spread against scrappy VCU Friday night. I did make a mistake on betting against Arizona State in a basketball tournament out here because the Sun Devils are coached by Herb Sendek, who we hated when he was at the other State in Raleigh. Sendek’s team covered.

Virginia Tech’s failure to cover had left me even money on the weekend, and I was about to quit.
Then they put up a halftime line on the Carolina game, the Tar Heels by 14. Didn’t matter that they were behind, 28-21, all they had to do was outscore Maryland by 15 points in the second half. Sure thing, I thought.

The Terps Stefon Diggs ran the second-half kickoff back 100 yards to give them a 14-point lead, but Renner went back to work on his 5 touchdown passes and Gio got to churning out tough yards. Soon, Carolina had scored enough to be “winning” the second half by 17 points, and I was looking good!

As for the game, by the way, Carolina was winning that, too, by 10 points. Smaller matter, of course, when your money is on the line.

Meanwhile, I was checking on another basketball game I had bet between Cornell of the Ivy League and one of the dumbest teams and I had ever seen the day before. A lock for the Big Red to win and cover, right?

Well, they turned out to be not so smart on this day, and the dumb team got mighty lucky, banking in 3-pointers and making twice as many free throws as they had clanged the day before.

Back to the Tar Heels, who got conservative with their 10-point lead and started working the clock, which good teams should do. And that Maryland quarter-backer made a HUGE fourth-down completion to Diggs to keep a drive alive.

It didn’t cost Carolina the game, because all the Terps got was a field goal. But it tied the second half spread and I went to the window to get a refund on my bet, but not to collect any winnings.

So, I guess it turned out right, all the way around. Larry Fedora got his eighth victory in his first regular season, something a Carolina coach hasn’t done since Ray Wolf in 1936. His maiden Heels also tied for the ACC Coastal Division title at 5-3, but shush we’re not supposed to mention that. 

And Renner continued his surge as perhaps the greatest UNC quarterback ever, throwing for unprecedented yards his last four games on the way to setting a school record for TD passes in a season (28). He already shared the five scoring throws in one game with other notables named Darian Durant and Kevin Anthony.

Bernard piled up more yardage, and also can become known as the greatest in UNC history if he joins Renner to return for the 2013 season.

If they do, and Fedora shores up a leaky defense with maturing players and new recruits, merely eight wins will be a thing of the past.

I’ll be happy to bet on that!

Thanks, Amazing Student Athletes

I have been told that if I want to continue coaching, I need to distance myself from what happened at UNC.  One administrator told me that what happened there is “toxic” and only time and distance will make it go away. 
I don’t want to distance myself from UNC.  On this Thanksgiving week I want to give thanks for ALL the young men who I had the privilege of coaching at the University of North Carolina.  My feelings are deeply invested in each of them.  I cannot imagine distancing myself from these fine young men who I recruited and coached.  In fact, in difficult times, amid the messiness and ambiguity of the last couple of years, these young men inspired me daily and fed my spirit to continue to work hard. 
As a coach at UNC I wanted to help them become the best football players that they could be.  I also wanted them to become the best students, family members, fathers, and citizens they could be.  I found in my five years of coaching at UNC and six years of living in this community that these young men taught me a lot more than I probably taught them.
My memories from the University of North Carolina will not be of an institution, an emblem, or a brand.  My memories will be of people.  I am so thankful for the relationships forged here and the players will forever remain close to my family and me.
T.J. Yates, who found the strength to persevere when things were tough, is someone I am thankful for.  I did not have the luxury of asking people to leave the stadium when T.J. got booed.  I walked with T.J. every step of the way and watched him transform himself from the butt of jokes to the Tar Heel of the Year for the 2010-2011 school year. 
I will forever remain close to men like Devon Ramsey, who was unjustly suspended by the University and then banned by the NCAA.  Devon is the type of person this community and the NCAA should hold up as all that is right in college football, yet somehow, for reasons I will never understand, he was thrown under the bus.  With the help of wonderful people like his mother, Sharon Lee, and a Raleigh lawyer and UNC grad, Bob Orr, Devon regained eligibility and will finish his sixth year as a Tar Heel this Saturday.  Devon’s quiet strength and remarkable resiliency are models for us all. 
I am a better father, partner, and family member because of my relationship with Dwight Jones.  Dwight modeled unwavering love and commitment for family members amid complicated and ambiguous situations that few will ever understand.  His spirit and love for his children is something that I draw upon regularly.  Dwight brought so much more to the Carolina community than touchdowns and big plays.  He is one of the most responsible people I know and one of the greatest blessings in my life. 
Bryn Renner’s uncontainable enthusiasm and spirit lifted me and spurred me to continue working hard in August of 2011 during the darkest days of my professional career.  After Coach Davis was fired days before the start of training camp we regularly prayed together and pushed one another forming an uncommon bond that will last a lifetime.  Bryn started the season in record breaking fashion and set the standard for a work ethic that every member of that record- setting offense developed. 
If you ever go to Dallas, NC, due west of Charlotte, just drop the name A.J. Blue and you will be treated like royalty.  As A.J. recovered from a knee injury during the 2010 season he switched from running back to quarterback, the position he played in high school.  I felt that this would be a way to keep him mentally stimulated throughout the season as he continued to rehab and learn the game.  He developed a close bond with T.J. Yates and became the individual that signaled the plays from the sideline for the 2010 season.  More importantly, A.J. brought an indomitable spirit to our meeting room that made having 14 starters suspended seem insignificant. T.J. once told me he “learned more about life in our meeting room than in all my classes combined.”
Pete Mangum, a walk on from Leesville Road High School, demonstrated to everyone in the Carolina community what it means to seize an opportunity.  I can remember how frustrated I would get at him for playing so well defensively on the scout team, therefore, making our offense look bad.  I begged Coach Davis to give him a shot on special teams.  He did, and Pete earned a scholarship.  He has been a pillar of strength in the program as they rotated through three head coaches in three years. 
Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate will forever be dear to me.  These two men were recruited by Coach Bunting and immediately welcomed me and committed to all that our staff asked of them.  Hakeem and Brandon worked on their craft as hard as any players I have ever coached and today are outstanding NFL wide receivers.  They are also devoted fathers that everyone in the Carolina community should be proud of. 
I hope that in the coming years the Carolina community will develop more of a capacity to value the gifts that this diverse group of men brought to the community.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “College is not an education, but a means to an education.”  I learned the most in the Carolina community through the difficult and invisible work of relationship building.  I have sat in team meetings where faculty members have lectured our team on the importance of visiting their professors during office hours.  While I think this is important, I think it is equally important for faculty members and administrators to meet these young men where they are.  I pray that faculty members and administrators won’t waste another day.  Introduce yourself to T.J. Thorpe.  You will thank me.  Ask Landon Turner out to lunch.  You will enjoy a meal with one of the most generous souls I know.  Familiarize yourself with the amazing stories of Kiaro Holts, Romar Morris, and Reggie Wilkins.  And take time to notice the uncommon gifts that Eric Ebron brings to the community.  He has a chance to become one of the best in the world at what he does and that has value. 
I am thankful for the relationships formed with all of the young men I have been blessed to coach at UNC.  No matter where my career takes me, the closer I stay to these kinds of relationship, the better off I’ll be.

'Just Blow The Horn'

I once coached with a guy who grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was the ball boy for the Utah Jazz during the prime of Karl Malone’s career.  He told me that Malone didn’t like pre-game warm ups.  In fact, Malone would often come out of the locker room right as the tip off was about to occur and go directly to center court.  When I asked my friend how Malone got away with this he reminded me that as one of the all-time great players, people trusted that Karl Malone knew how to get himself ready.  “Forget the shoot around.  Just blow the horn” were the words my colleague said “The Mailman” recited regularly. 

That is how I feel about Thursday games.  “Forget the shoot around.  Just blow the horn.” While in the NFL I coached with the Chicago Bears versus the Detroit Lions in their traditional Thanksgiving Day game at noon.  A Sunday afternoon to Thursday at noon road trip turnaround is even quicker than the Saturday afternoon to Thursday night road trip facing the Tar Heels.  This turnaround forced me to focus much more on our own team than the opponent.  We didn’t have the time to study the opponent as much as normal.  Therefore our attitude was let’s go do what we do well and don’t over think it.  “Just blow the horn.” 
I think Virginia’s style of defense lends itself to this approach.  Jim Reid, the DC for the Cavaliers, teaches a very traditional form of the 4-3 defense.  I never felt like I had to watch a lot of film to uncover the identity of a Jim Reid coached defense.  Virginia’s defense is not about trickery or schemes.  They play physical, fit runs, keep eleven pairs of eyes on the ball with good zone coverage, and gang tackle.   
Even with a short week, UNC should not have any confusion with how the Virginia defense aligns.  We believed that very few mental errors should occur when we played Virginia and our focus was on being as physical in the trenches as possible.  Because the Cavaliers were so good at fitting runs and pursuing to the ball, we emphasized the notion of “conflict of assignment.
In football deception is critical.  Offenses need to put defenders in a “conflict of assignment” and it is easier to do against well-coached zone defenses.  The idea is to take a defensive strength, such as diagnosing and fitting runs, and turn it into a weakness with deception.  For instance, Steve Greer, UVa’s middle linebacker, is so fast to plug a gap in the run game that our primary objective in the game was to get him to plug the hole on a play action pass.  Our offense used the phrase, “make the same things look different and different things look the same.”  The last time the Tar Heels played in Charlottesville, our quarterback T.J. Yates and our entire offensive line did a great job making play action passes look like runs in a big 44-10 win. 
We jumped out to a 27-10 halftime lead and Yates was on fire.  We were using lots of play action passes to move the ball and score but were having trouble running the ball.  At halftime, Coach Davis called me aside and asked me what the problem was with the run game.  He wanted us to run it down their throats and we couldn’t.  My response was that they were really good and fitting our schemes.  That was not a response that he wanted to hear and very clearly told me he wanted us to find a way to run effectively. 
Just then, a coach handed me the half time stat sheet.  I said out loud, “T.J. is 13 of 15 for over 250 yards and three touchdowns in the first half.”  Coach Davis sat quietly for a moment and let that sink in.  Then a grin came across his face as he responded, “Ah, hell, then keep throwin’ it.”   
We came out in the third quarter and T.J. put up a quick 10 points going 4-4 for 65 yards before turning it over to a young freshmen quarterback named Bryn Renner who completed his first collegiate pass that night in Charlottesville.

Creating An Awful State


Carolina left its arch football rival in an awful State Saturday after awakening a dead offense to score 18 points in the fourth quarter and startle the smug Wolfpack, which played most of the second half like it had the game won.

Not only did the Tar Heels snap that sickening five-game losing streak to State, they did it in such a way that the deflated Pack might play like dogs for the rest of the season. If you can ever make up for five losses with one win, Carolina came close in perhaps the strangest and most sensational game ever played among the lofty pines of Kenan Stadium.

Consider this:

The teams combined for 78 points and more than 1100 total yards, despite Carolina going scoreless in the middle two quarters on 11 straight possessions and State managing only one touchdown in the second half.

After emerging in navy blue uniforms and metallic silver helmets with a light blue Heel print covering both sides, the Tar Heels not only looked like a Nike version of Oregon East, but raced to their first 15 points on two reverses and one trick two-point conversion. The crowd was rocking, images of a vengeful blowout dancing in our dreams. Then reality set in.

State, by contrast, wore boring uniforms of retro-loooking red and white from the 1960s, when the Wolfpack played for Earle Edwards and in a concrete carcass at the fairgrounds that later become the expanded Carter-Finely complex.

After shaking off UNC’s opening salvo, State took to the air behind its 6-6 quarterback Mike Glennon who stood untouched in the pocket to begin throwing his five touchdown passes on the day. Giving Glennon time to find open receivers amidst UNC’s small, young secondary is a recipe for disaster. And with Glennon facing a third-and-long, perhaps the easiest play in football to defend, he rolled right and fired a missile to tiny Tobias Palmer 20 yards behind the dark blue d-backs to put the Pack in front for the first time.

Glennon completed 29 passes and had at least six dropped, but Carolina also shot itself in the Heel by blowing two red zone opportunities. Bryn Renner, who played great early and late, threw a bad interception from the 5-yard line, and 6-4 freshman Quinshad Davis allowed State’s 5-11 graduate student C.J. Wilson to strip a reception away that would have led to another UNC score.

During the Tar Heels’ scratch sandwich in the second and third periods, State stupidly stopped attacking the Carolina defense, which was calling more blitzes to put pressure on Glennon. One last long TD pass for a 10-point lead convinced the Wolfpack all it had to do was run the clock and go home with a sixth straight win over the school it has had fun mocking the last two years for off-field problems.

But whether banged up or looking beaten, don’t ever give up on a Larry Fedora team. Gio Bernard, our modern-day Choo Choo, exemplified that by coming back from a sprained ankle with tape inside and outside his shoe. He was better off to keep moving than letting it stiffen on the sideline. Primarily a swing pass receiver early, the Gio-blaster put it into high gear to go over a hundred yards rushing for the fourth straight game and capped the incredible comeback with the 74-yard punt return that afforded him official legend status with the Tar Heels.

When he saw Carolina setting up for a return (instead of going for the block) after State seemed satisfied to take the 35-35 score into overtime, Bernard waved Roy Smith off the field and played with pain for one more play, a race to the right and sprint up the sideline that will live in Tar Heel infamy. He found his blocking wall and, barely touched, streaked by agape State players and coaches into the end zone and right to the crazed Tar Pit students. They were hugging him and banging him while Gio was crying.

State pulled out some of those five straight wins with a little luck and probably kicked itself all the way back to Raleigh for letting this one get away. The Wolfpack ran the ball to kill the clock at the end, allowing UNC to use its last two timeouts and get one more chance to win in regulation. Then Pack punter Will Baumann brazenly boomed the ball to Bernard in the middle of the field without angling it for the sideline or, for cripes sake, kicking the sucker out of bounds.

What a dummkopf. Hadn’t he heard of Gio Bernard before?

Analyze This: Duke Was Better

DURHAM – Carolina’s heart-pounding fourth-quarter loss to Duke Saturday night will be analyzed and picked over like an unsolved crime. Motives. Methods. Missing plays and players.

On a beautiful night in a stadium that has not seen so many people and so much passion in a long, long time, the Tar Heels could not or did not raise their level of play to match what they should have known was coming until the frenetic fourth quarter. And it’s probably something they have to learn by losing.

These are kids in pads, and most of the fans who filled Wallace Wade Stadium have been watching this rivalry since before all of the players were born. The Blue Devils certainly knew the frustration of their predecessors who had beaten their arch rival exactly once since 1989. But the Tar Heels either didn’t know how much they have dominated the series over the last 22 years or appreciate what that can do to amp any opponent.

And for the first time in a long time, Duke is a pretty good opponent. Great, in fact, for most of this night. And one that might be around for a while.
The Tar Heels got off to a fast start, what they’ve been trying to do for the last four weeks, and blew the singular chance to silence the crowd and take the juice out of the home team when a long interception return to inside the Duke 10-yard line was nullified by an over-aggressive hit on the quarterback. Had Carolina not committed that penalty and gone up 10-0, it might have been a whole different ball game (even the blowout one columnist predicted). 
But through three quarters, they settled for three field goals, which made it five straight 15-minute periods without crossing the goal line. With Duke loading the box to try to stop the magnificent Gio Bernard, Carolina started off throwing and was not effective after Bryn Renner got shaken up on a scramble up the middle.
As lousy as the Tar Heels played and as loud as the old horseshoe was through those first three quarters, Carolina finally came to life with a fake field goal and first down run by holder Tommy Hibbard and the squelching of a fake punt by Duke that gave the Heels a short field and the chance to crawl back closer from 14 points behind.

Renner, the cobwebs apparently cleared, hit a crucial fourth-down throw over the middle to Eric Ebron, a nifty TD slant to Sean Tapley and a crossing route to Erik Highsmith, who ran 20 yards and fumbled the ball. Bernard, in a terrific teaching moment for all young football players, never stopped chasing the play and scooped up the loose ball inside the 10 for the go-ahead touchdown.

Somehow they lead 30-26 with just over three minutes left and were one stop from a most undeserving retention of the Victory Bell that’s been painted royal blue by now.
Duke, which had bamboozled UNC all night by running the ball up the gut for large chunks of yardage, went back to its traditional passing game. The Blue Devils matched the Tar Heels’ 91-yard march of minutes before with a last-ditch drive of 87 yards to the winning play on literally their last chance — 4th and goal at the 2. Duke quarterback Sean Renfree, playing on this night like Duke Coach David Cutcliffe’s protégés named Manning, fired the fatal bullet between double coverage.

So, after the 33-30 heartbreaker, Carolina fans want to know why Duke played faster, smarter and more physical than the team that owns the motto. How could Duke, the 10th best rushing team in the ACC coming in, ram it up our gut for almost 250 yards on the ground? And why, after making that miraculous comeback, couldn’t we make one defensive stop that would have ended the game like lots of old classics between these Blue Bloods – close but still no cigar for Duke?

“They made more plays than we did,” Larry Fedora said after his first taste of the Duke-Carolina rivalry. “We didn’t execute on offense and didn’t execute on defense. Simple as that.”
Maybe it was Renner, who doesn’t seem to play well right after getting his bell rung. Back-up Marquise Williams’ only pass of the night was a well-executed screen to Super-Gio that went for 40 yards. Why didn’t Williams at least finish that series that led to a field goal and 3-0 lead instead of a touchdown?
Maybe it was Carolina’s “NFL offensive line” that got outplayed by Duke’s anonymous blocking front until late in the game, blowing the Tar Heels front four or five off the line of scrimmage snap after snap.
Maybe it was UNC’s secondary, which for the second week in a row did not give up anything long over the top, but couldn’t keep Duke’s All-ACC receiver Conner Vernon from turning in critical long catch-and-runs on the last drive.
Or maybe it was Fedora, getting his first taste of the Carolina-Duke rivalry, who could not get his team to raise its level of intensity until the fourth quarter when the Tar Heels were whooping it up on the sideline and coming out en masse to join every timeout huddle in the dramatic last minute.

Or maybe there are no maybes about it. Duke, parlaying outstanding play with hyper-energy from a fantastic home crowd, was simply better. Case closed.

Not This Time Either, Duke!

If Duke thinks this is the year to beat UNC, the Blue Devils had better think again.

The records are dead even – both teams 5-2 overall and 2-1 in the ACC. And they are mirror images of each other, playing a no huddle, fast-paced offense and an ameba-like 4-2-5 defense. So, it seems like an even game at Wallace Wade Stadium at 7 p.m. on national TV, even if it is ESPN with a U at the end.

But I always tell people that the surest way to predict the future is to look at the past. And Carolina has won an astonishing 21 of the last 22 games between these arch rivals who ARE dead even on the basketball court. Football has been a different story since Duke white-washed Carolina 41-0 in 1989 and posed in front of the scoreboard when some dummy from UNC should have turned it off!

The series was pretty even after that game 37-35 and 4 ties in Carolina’s favor. But Duke’s only win since then was in 2003. Now the Blue Devils believe that the circumstances have conspired to make this their year. Not so. Wallace Wade, as always will be half light blue, and the visiting team is better in every category. When Larry Fedora’s first season has hit a blip, the Heels have beaten themselves.

Both teams play the hurry-up offense, which by the rules can leave the defense out of position. If a team substitutes on offense, the defense has to have time to substitute, too. But if the same offensive players stay on the field, they can snap the ball as soon as they are ready. Carolina has been better catching opponents with 12 men on the field or not being lined up when Bryn Renner gets the ball.

Carolina’s NFL front line, led by future pros James Hurst and Jonathan Cooper, will blast open Duke’s defense, and Giovani Bernard will have a field day at night. The defense did a good job of keeping Miami from completing the long ball, and Duke’s offense isn’t better than the Hurricanes, whether pocket passer Sean Renfree or scrambler Anthony Boone plays quarterback.

And the UNC special teams, which punts and covers well, blocks kicks and tries trick plays, is still  superior to the the Blue Devils. 

So, it’s one, two, three what are we fighting for? Duke tries to get its sixth win and first bowl bid since 1994. Carolina tries to keep rolling toward 10-2 and the North Carolina state championship, whatever that means. This particular game, it means the Tar Heels in a blowout and 22 of the last 23.

Recruiting Wars

“Run Gio Run” has become a constant chant that builds and builds each Saturday as we anticipate Gio Bernard accelerating through a hole and with one cut, he’s off to the races.  So it wasn’t too surprising when the Hurricanes of Miami saw up close “Run Gio Run.”  Many times.  A monster performance in Gio’s homecoming (he grew up in Fort Lauderdale and went to nearby St. Thomas Aquinas High School) propelled the Heels to a gutty 18-14 win while knocking Miami from the ranks of the ACC unbeatens (Canes are now 3-1 in league). 

“Gio the Great” rushed 27 times for a grinding as well as electric 177 yards (a 6.6 average) and registered two first half touchdowns.  Additionally, he caught four passes for 36 yards, including a 16 yard, shoe string grab on 4th and 6 that would make even Jerry Rice proud.  That catch kept the momentum going on a key drive and led UNC Coach Larry Fedora to say, “Gio’s a complete player.  Whether it’s pass blocking on protections, catching the ball or running, he’s going to do whatever he can to help us win.”  Coach Fedora calls him complete – I call him the most dynamic player in the ACC this year.  He is running behind an offensive line that ESPN NFL gurus Mel Kiper and Todd McShay have called the best O line in the country so there is a growing chemistry working where the boys up front have Gio’s back and he has theirs. 
Other Florida products wearing the Tar Heel blue made their presence felt on Saturday as well:  LB Tommy Heffernan (Miami, Florida) came up huge with a big time sack on Miami’s final drive and continues to be a new fan favorite with his underdog story and tough play; Tre Boston (Fort Myers, Florida) had a huge game and highlighted great Tar Heel secondary play with one pick and another one called back due to a questionable pass interference call.  Boston is one of three UNC defensive backs from the great state of Florida with the final spot being occupied by Virginia product Tim Scott.  Boston knew what to expect when he said, ”South Florida boys can run, and that’s exactly what I am,” and indeed our defensive skill players were stride for stride with Miami’s running backs and receivers.
So as trilled as I am by getting our first road win in Miami, I’m also excited about what this does for the game within the game.  W’s like this help give Coach Fedora and his staff an upper hand when it comes to the game of recruiting.  Coach Fedora has stated on record very clearly that his first and foremost goal in recruiting is to put a barbwire fence around the state of North Carolina and make sure that the most talented prospects from this state commit to the flagship University in North Carolina where they will have the opportunity to experience what I did six years ago – the magic of being a Tar Heel and everything that it stands for.  I am 100% on board with this strategy but, at the same time, you cannot ignore the hot beds of talent that sit in close proximity to us in Florida and Virginia respectively.  With two great back-to-back wins over perennial Coastal Division  juggernauts Virginia Tech and Miami, Fedora and his staff will have a great selling tool and recruiting momentum when they enter the living rooms of high school prospects this off-season to sell them on the dreams of where this program is going.  The culture change of Carolina Football has been front and center the last two weeks in the ACC and people are taking notice.  You can see below that our current starters have a strong Virginia and especially Florida background and I know we will build on this going forward.   
LT – James Hurst (Plainfield, IN)
LG – Jonathan Cooper (Wilmington, NC)
C – Russell Bodine (Scottsville, VA)
RG – Travis Bond (Windsor, NC)
RT – Brennan Williams (West Roxburry, MA
TE – Eric Ebron (Greensboro, NC)
QB – Bryn Renner (West Springfield, VA)
TB – Giovani Bernard (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
WR – Erik Highsmith (Vanceboro, NC)
WR – Sean Tapley (Jacksonville, FL)
WR – Quinshad Davis (Gaffney, SC)
DE – Kareem Martin (Roanoke Rapids, VA)
DT – Sylvester Williams (Jefferson City, MO)
NT – Tim Jackson (St. Petersburg, FL)
BANDIT – Dion Guy (Washington, D.C)
WILL – Travis Hughes (Virginia Beach, VA) / Tommy Heffernan (Miami, FL)
MIKE – Kevin Reddick (New Bern, NC)
RAM – Gene Robinson (Memphis, TN)
CB – Jabari Price (Pompano Beach, FL)
SS – Tre Boston (Fort Myers, FL)
FS – Sam Smiley (Jacksonville, FL)
CB – Tim Scott (Fredericksburg, VA)
Next stop:  Duke under the lights, protect the Victory Bell at all cost!!
Smart. Fast. Physical.

Art's Angle: Little Big Man

Gio is Gio and a win is a win.

Fortunately for the Tar Heels, those two things have to go hand in hand to pull out a beautifully ugly 18-14 victory over Miami for the first road W of the Larry Fedora era.

Carolina did a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong, but only a team with moxie pulls one out when it was there for the losing. Nearly 500 yards of total offense and only 18 points is generally a formula for many mistakes. Take your pick.

Two failed field goals and one interception in the red zone. A second straight game with 15 penalties, this one for more than 150 yards that included consecutive 12-men on the field flags. When it figured out you can only play with 11, the defense warped and bent but, thank goodness, did not break.

Most of all thanks to the human bowling ball known as Giovani Bernard, who finished like he started on his way to 177 yards rushing, 36 receiving and 26 returning.

The biggest mystery surrounding Bernard’s homecoming to Fort Lauderdale, where he starred for St. Thomas Aquinas High School, is how the hell he ever got out of Florida without signing with Miami, Florida, Florida State, Central Florida, South Florida, Florida International or Florida Atlantic? Well, you get the point.

Rumor has it the bigger of those schools thought he was too small. A 5-10, 205-pound all-purpose stud who is Ray Rice small, Emmitt Smith small, more than 500 yards in the last two games small. All those recruiters and recruiting coordinators who still have jobs in the Sunshine State are saying today, “Not me, coach, he wasn’t my responsibility.”

Fedora should send a thank you note to Butch Davis and his staff for snagging this bullet train, among other talented players that are flourishing in the new system.

Seemingly, the only thing Bernard lacks halfway through his second season at Carolina is a nickname that’s even cooler than his abbreviated first name. Go-Go? Bam-Bam? The new Choo Choo?

Bernard scored both of Carolina’s touchdowns, picking his hole and then blasting through it to the end zone. The first one set the tone for what looked like a blowout on the beach before the Tar Heels began blowing opportunities to do so. The second one gave the guys in all white the lead they kept for good, precariously protected by Bernard’s last-drive yardage that put Miami into the Hail Mary mode.

Carolina’s secondary gave up 235 passing, mostly to wildly erratic quarterback Stephen Morris, but the DBs kept the Miami receivers in front of them and forced long drives. That’s not the Hurricanes’ MO. The Heels, on the other hand, love lopping off large chunks of yardage quickly, trying to tire out the defense. Bernard is a brilliant weapon in such an attack.

Gio’s golden moment was a drive-sustaining shoe-top catch of Bryn Renner’s lob that only someone so small with such hands of glue could snag off the grass and control while he rolled over twice. With a fresh set of downs, Carolina needed only one snap as Bernard bolted 17 yards for the lead, which became eight when punter Tommy Hibbard caught the ‘Canes napping before the point-after team shifted over.

Hibbard’s two-point pass to Eric Ebron provided a lead that Miami could not match when its own trick play for a tie was slapped with a delay-of-game penalty. The Canes kicked to get within one, the closest they ever were in dropping to 4-3 and 3-1 in the ACC.

It didn’t work last week, but maybe when the Tar Heels prepare for Duke. Fedora had plenty to bitch on following the fabulous offensive display against Virginia Tech, like those 15 penalties, special team gaffes and defensive lapses. He’ll have even more to ride them about this week.

But bottom line, thanks to gyrating Gio, is that Carolina is 5-2 overall and near the top (2-1) of the ACC Coastal Division they cannot win.  Their next two games will also determine the so-called state championship that they CAN win if only they will celebrate it.

When you have so little to play for, it’s a good thing you have a too-small back to lead the way.