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.

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.

Raging Heels

In a sea of white last Saturday, the Tar Heels finally gave us what we’ve been craving for — a program altering win.  With the precision of a surgeon, the boys in white not only notched their first ACC win of the year in exciting fashion but also removed the 0-4 monkey off their back against Virginia Tech at the “The Pit” (Kenan Stadium). 

With a dominating performance from the offensive line and a record setting performance from Gio Bernard, the Tar Heels sent the Hokies into a Coastal Division early season spiral which has not happened since VT entered the ACC in 2004.  Like most Carolina fans, I thought this was going to be a grind-it-out, last minute type of win, but with a gutsy 4th and inches call to start the 2nd quarter from Coach Fedora, the Tar Heels were off to the races.  Did you see TE Jack Tabb’s seal block off the left edge on Gio’s 62 yard scamper to pay dirt?  Nothing makes a former player like me happier than seeing VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster looking befuddled as one of our guys gallops past him on the way to the go ahead touchdown.  And we weren’t done there.  Both offensive and defensive units continued to bring the hammer and the excitement grew. 
With great efforts from many and a break out performance from Sean Tapley (His first of two touchdowns was a 94 yard kickoff return…And as a heads up, VT had not given up a kickoff return for a TD since 1993) as well as a stingy run defense that held Virginia Tech to a measly 40 yards on the ground, the Tar Heels had the perfect recipe for a big win.  This will go a long way in helping us forget the nightmares of Mike Imoh and his 243 yard rushing performance the last time the Turkeys came to Kenan. 

The atmosphere in the “The Pit” was electric on Saturday especially for an early kickoff (noon snoozer as they are referred to) and the men on the field truly delievered a great product for us to watch and be a part of.  They came out and played for 60 minutes with heart, determination and a goal of taking the fight to Virginia Tech.  Before the game, Carolina was a 6 point favorite set by Vegas.  Many times in the past, we have seen situations where expectations are high leading up to a big game in Chapel Hill and the Heels were not able to deliver the goods for whatever reason.  Not this time. 
I am fully chest deep in the Fedora kool aid and believed that this team could take care of business against VT and start to change the culture of Carolina Football.  And if you don’t think a win against a Frank Beamer Virgina Tech team is not a program changer, then you aren’t paying attention to the big picture.  It should no longer be acceptable for fans to hope to be competive with the likes of perenial conference favorites Virginia Tech, Miami or Georgia Tech;  we should see ourselves as the program moving forward while those others and sliding back or staying stagnant.  This win also helps us with our sales pitch to recruits in the fertile recruiting grounds of Virginia in general and the Tidewater area specifically.  This was more than just a “W” on Saturday — it was another huge building block in the re-birth of Carolina Football.
Smart. Fast. Physical.

Hokie Smoked!

There’s a lot to make fun of about Virginia Tech. The Hokies have never won a National Championship in a varsity sport. They selected a hideous color scheme that was only chosen because no other team had it (or would ever want it, quite frankly). Cows outnumber people on their campus, and the number of traffic lights in Blacksburg can be counted on your fingers, which is good since Tech students might not be able to do it any other way. Their mascot is a turkey, for goodness’ sake.

Despite these shortcomings, one thing that the Hokies get absolutely, positively right is the atmosphere on football gamedays. Lane Stadium is, objectively, one of the best places to watch a football game in the country. Everyone knows to wear that ugly Chicago maroon and burnt orange. Everyone knows how to do the annoying cheers, and they do them in unison. That stupid turkey mascot looks like he (or she) would run through a brick wall if it meant that the Hokies would win. Though they may be self-righteous occasionally, the fans in Blacksburg are generally respectful of their opponents and care deeply about their own team. Frank Beamer usually fields one of the best squads in the ACC, and the level of fan commitment, though not the only factor, has played no small part in Tech’s recent 7-1 run against Carolina since joining the conference in 2004.

This weekend, though, the script was flipped. Kenan Stadium was absolutely rocking leading up to kickoff. The fans were fully invested, with nearly everyone donning the appropriate colored shirt or paint to create a well-executed “White-Out.” My friends were all excited for the game, even the ones that claimed not to care about football at all.  Say what you want about home-field advantage, but I feel confident that the raucous atmosphere played a big role in the Tar Heels’ relatively easy 48-34 win; Coach Fedora seemed to agree, pointing up at the student section with a big grin on his face as he walked into the tunnel following the game.

Perhaps the Hokies are simply having a down year, which seems likely given their earlier shellackings at the hands of Pitt and Cincinnati. Still, UNC put up some historic offensive numbers against VT. The 48 points the Heels scored were the most that Virginia Tech has allowed since joining the ACC. Virginia Tech gave up 339 rushing yards on Saturday, which is the most accumulated against them by an opponent that doesn’t run the option since Beamer became head coach in 1987. Gio Bernard personally gained 262 yards on 22 carries, which is more than any individual had ever racked up against the Hokies. Not even Tech’s traditionally strong special teams were spared, as Sean Tapley scored Carolina’s first touchdown of the game on a 94-yard kickoff return; it was the first kick-return touchdown allowed by Tech since 1993, breaking the longest active streak in the country.

The most amazing part of the performance by the Tar Heels was that it could have been even better. UNC was sloppy at times on both sides of the ball, getting called for 15 penalties for 126 yards. The defense allowed several big plays, including a 49-yard touchdown pass over the top to Marcus Davis on a mediocre double-move. Gio Bernard, brilliant otherwise, muffed a punt near halftime and allowed Virginia Tech to mount a late drive. The Hokies were able to run back a kickoff for a touchdown because of some poor tackling by the UNC special teams, which cut the lead down to nine midway through the third quarter. The defensive line struggled at times to get pressure on Logan Thomas, though the referees were less than stellar and failed to call obvious holds on several plays. Ultimately, though, the defense forced a couple big turnovers (Tim Scott’s interception and Travis Hughes’ strip of Michael Holmes) and ensured that the offense’s incredible effort did not go to waste.

The Fedora Formula is simple: Effective Spread Offense + Key Defensive Plays + Loud Crowd = Victory. Against Virginia Tech, the Heels finally plugged all the pieces into the equation, and the resulting win serves as proof that when executing properly for four quarters, UNC can play with anyone. Can we do it consistently? Well, that remains to be seen.

Art's Angle: All White Is All Right

Hey, Coach, can we wear all white the next two weeks in Dade County and Durham?

White was sure right Saturday, as Carolina kicked old nemesis Virginia Tech around antiseptic Kenan Stadium for a signature win that pretty much showed us the full measure of Larry Fedora’s football program.
The less-than-capacity crowd made enough white noise so it seemed full, increasing the decibel as the slow-starting Tar Heels followed three straight three-and-outs and a Virginia Tech touchdown with Sean Tapley’s 94-yard kickoff return to the White House that tied the game. From there, all those Marooned in the northeast corner had little to cheer about.
Since it was the first such score given up by the vaunted Beamer Ball special teams since 1993, 237 games ago, they kind of knew there was more white lighting to come. Giovani Bernard lost three yards in the first quarter, then gained 265 over the last three to pass names like Voight, Means and Bryant as the 5th highest single-game rusher in UNC history.
Sure there was sloppy play and eight penalties in the first period alone by the amped-up Heels, who relinquished a 93-yard kickoff return and several long bombs of their own. But where the Hokies usually excel, on the ground, they were limited to 40 yards all sun-splashed afternoon. Go figure.
Carolina has now rung up its first consecutive 45-point games since 1993, when Mack Brown had his program smoking. And although it was 66 last week, Virginia Tech ain’t no Idaho. Any time you can manhandle a Bud Foster defense like the White Phantoms did, you’ve had a good day at the office. Make that a great day.
The Tar Heels remain unbeaten at home in Fedora’s freshman season, but they finally gave up a touchdown in their own house – four, as a matter of record. But they still own the cumulative third quarter (83-6) and second-half (119-24) scores. And they’re getting better in the first half, leading 28-20 at the break that should have been more lopsided but for Bernard’s bobble of a punt near mid-field. Since there has been so much talk of academics lately, it was Gio’s only “F” of an otherwise straight-A day.
The human bowling ball from Florida, where he’ll go home to Saturday against Miami, may be the most versatile player Carolina has ever had. He’s both a finesse and ferocious runner, has great hands to snag Bryn Renner’s passes and is dangerous from anywhere on the field as long as Coach Larry leaves him in the game, which was almost till the happy ending of the Great White Out that was more like a Wipe Out.
Gio’s first 62 yards came on the first snap of the second quarter on a bit of chicanery from Fedora and O-coordinator Blake Anderson, who say they were talked into it by the offense during the timeout between quarters. Facing a 4th-and-1 from their own 38, play resumed with both the offensive unit and the punting team standing on the field near the home sideline. Would they try a hard count to draw the Hokies off side and then punt, or just kick it away with the score tied at 14?
When the whistle blew, the punting team jumped back out of bounds, and the offense sprinted right to the line of scrimmage, as the Hokies bunched everyone in the box to stop whatever was coming. Fedora must have some nickname for the play, like Sprint or Scram or Hiccup.
I would call it SUCKER. The moment the offense was set, Russell Bodine snapped the ball to Renner, who handed it to Gio off left tackle. With tight end Jack Tabb sealing the edge, Bernard bolted through the stunned defense and was in the end zone before the Hokies knew what the hell happened.
The Virginia Tech dam was leaking and it burst in the third quarter when linebacker Travis Hughes stripped the runner and returned the ball eight yards. A few snaps later, Renner hit Tapley with his second score down the left sideline. All White was All Right from there to the alma mater in front of the Tar Pit and into the tunnel.
Here are a few more numbers from the 48-34 whitening of Virginia Tech: 

  • Most points against the Hokies since 42 in the 1998 Gator Bowl (Brown’s last team, although Mack was already unpacking in Texas).

  • In what is generally a drudgery game, most combined points since a 39-21 score in 1930, the last decade Carolina beat VaTech at home.

  • The 339 yards rushing was Carolina’s most since 341 against Bill & Mary in 2004. The school record by the way is 555 against Virginia in 1943. So, clearly, the Heels love to run wild over institutions from Thomas Jefferson’s state.

  • Bernard’s sick 11.4 average-per-carry set another school record, beating out Kelvin Bryant’s 11.1 against East Carolina (which began this three-game home winning streak) in 1981.

  • And Renner’s two more touchdown passes in not even two full seasons gives him 41, passing four-year QBs Jason Stanicek and Ronald Curry on the hit list.  

  • Oh, yes, Casey Barth made it 153 straight PATs and increased his UNC-record to 60 field goals with two more that split the uprights, politically correctly booting one into the Tar Pit net and the other into the Blue Zone (which actually had people there for most of the game).
That’s another good reason to keep the White Out going, Coach. In the east end zone, you can tell the sun-bathers from the seats.


To most Carolina fans, ECU is like a much younger brother. It’s sort of cute and amusing the way he thinks that he can compete with you and all your friends when you play pick-up games, much like how ECU thinks that they have a football rivalry with UNC (Seriously, check their Wikipedia page) and how they want to join the Big East. You sort of just laugh and shake your head when you hear his protests that he’d be really good if you just gave him a chance. Occasionally you let him play with you to be nice, and most of the time, he gets crushed, but you don’t rub it in because it’s not a big deal or even important to you. You’re expected to win because you’re bigger, stronger, faster:

End of story. The trouble is that every once in awhile, you play poorly, your brother plays out of his mind, and you get a little bit unlucky, resulting in a rare victory for the younger sibling. This, while obviously a little embarrassing, wouldn’t be such a terrible thing in and of itself. It’s the way your younger brother then proceeds to talk about it 24/7 to every person in the entire world, like it’s the greatest achievement of mankind since the lunar landing, that’s the real problem. Suffering through unwarranted arrogance, as UNC fans were forced to do following the loss in Greenville in 2007, is the worst punishment of all.

The desire to avoid shame is a powerful motivator, and the atmosphere was very energetic as football returned to Kenan Stadium following a two-week reprieve. Chase Rice got the crowd going before the game with a tailgate concert, and tons of students were painting up in support of the Heels just outside the stadium. As annoying as it was to see roughly 25% of the crowd in purple, complete with a fan in a full pirate costume in the Tar Pit shouting idiotic cheers like “ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH” and “ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH,” I respect ECU fans for showing up. The same could not be said of UNC Greeks, who, despite a well-run pep rally the night before, did not come close to filling their section prior to kickoff.

Even though UNC supporters were largely fired up, the Heels were not ready to go at the outset of the game. Gio Bernard returned from injury to score a nice touchdown in the first quarter, but he never seemed quite as electric as he did in the opener against Elon. The defense played pretty well, holding ECU to two field goals, but the offense couldn’t capitalize on its chances. The first half was epitomized by the sequence that concluded the second quarter. UNC took over with under two minutes to play and moved the ball down to the ECU 16 with relative ease, but then Renner was strip-sacked on third down, forcing the Heels to attempt a field goal after recovering the fumble. Casey Barth, normally automatic inside 40 yards, missed the chip shot, leaving the score 10-6 going into the half. In short, what should have been a dominant performance was derailed by a few mistakes and missed opportunities.

The Tar Heels looked better on offense in the third quarter, scoring on a quick strike to Sean Tapley, immediately recovering a fumble on the next ECU possession, and turning the short field into another touchdown. Still, the game was sloppy on both sides of the ball, as UNC racked up a total of nine penalties for 91 yards, including a stupid personal foul for blocking a player without a helmet. Despite recording five sacks in the second half and holding the Pirates scoreless, the tackling on defense was less than stellar, particularly on a 36-yard scamper by Vintavious Cooper that allowed ECU to pick up a 3rd-and-31.

Ultimately, UNC was lucky to have been playing an inferior opponent, and it’s unlikely that the Tar Heels would have won had this been an ACC contest. Still, a win is a win, and though it may not have felt that way, Carolina did win by three touchdowns.
My favorite moment of the game occurred as I was leaving the stadium. On my way out, I overheard a father explaining to his young son that “ECU is the kind of team that you want to beat really badly.”

“But why?” asked the curious child.

After thinking for a second, the father replied, “Because they don’t understand that we’re a lot better, so we have to show them just how much better we are.”

And as I veered off the path back toward my dorm, I heard the kid’s voice carrying over the crowd, “But we just beat them by a lot, and we didn’t even play good. How could they not know that we’re better?”

I wish I could have heard the answer.