To This Place As To No Other

“What is it that binds us to this place as to no other?”

At every home game, Charles Kuralt’s iconic quote is played from the speakers as the band walks out onto the field at Kenan Satdium, but on no other day is it as moving as on Homecoming. Returning alumni wear their emotions proudly on their sleeves, as the thrill of cheering for one’s school and seeing old pals overtakes all else. Nothing is as important to me as the interpersonal connections that I have made here at Chapel Hill, and in that respect, UNC will always be the “University of the People” to me. Many others probably feel the same way.

It is appropriate, however, that Kuralt did not mention football in explaining the mystique of the University of North Carolina given the performance of the Tar Heels on Saturday. Coming off a bye week and a huge win over NC State, many UNC fans were expecting an easy victory over a Georgia Tech squad that has struggled this season. Instead of a happy Homecoming, they were treated to “the most boring 68-50 game in the history of college football,” to quote the guy standing beside me in the Tar Pit.

What happened? Basically, the Yellow Jackets executed their high school triple-option offense to near perfection, and the UNC defense failed miserably in its efforts to stop the run. The poor tackling that has plagued the Tar Heels all season long was particularly evident, as GT piled up 380 rushing yards. Fans loudly booed the dangerous chop-block tactics of Tech’s offensive line, but to no avail. This was all really a new verse of the same song; the Heels haven’t beaten Georgia Tech since 2008, when Paul Johnson was first installing his offensive system in Atlanta. Boring but effective, the Jackets pounded away per usual and ultimately made the Heels pay with seven rushing touchdowns.

As bad as the rush defense was, the pass defense wasn’t much better. The defensive backs, particularly Tre Boston and Gene Robinson, gave up several deep completions on play-action fakes that ultimately led to Yellow Jacket scores. Not to be outdone, the special teams allowed a 100-yard kick return touchdown and were stopped on a botched fake where punter Tommy Hibbard decided to try to run for a first down on 4th and 10 from the Tar Heels’ 25 yard line. Giving up 380 rushing yards makes it hard to win, and playing poorly in other phases of the game certainly doesn’t help.

There were bright spots for the offense, though, as might be expected in such a shootout. Gio Bernard continued his dark-horse Heisman campaign with two touchdowns, including a dazzling 78-yard reception where he broke several tackles and threw some wicked stiff arms on his way to the end zone. Romar Morris and AJ Blue looked like capable replacements should Bernard declare for the NFL draft, with three touchdowns between the two. There were several nice grabs made by Quinshad Davis, who has displayed flashes of brilliance that suggest he could be a serious downfield threat for the Heels for next season. In short, not all was bad.

Then again, Georgia Tech lost to Middle Tennessee State by the score of 49-28 earlier this year.



In a season that will be defined by Gio’s punt return to claim an emphatic victory over the Wolfpack, most Tar Heel fans will probably forget the 2012 Homecoming Game. As the seasons turn and basketball begins, the annual ritual of neglecting football is upon us. With no chance at an ACC title or a bowl game, it’s not hard to see why the excitement is gone. There are still some positive elements on which to build, some sparks that could ignite the team going forward, though. And thus the refrain of a Cleveland childhood echoes through my mind: Things will be different next year.

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.

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.

Heartbreak Heels

Larry Fedora got his first taste of the ACC, playing on Tobacco Road and, unfortunately, the culture that has dogged Carolina football for a long time. It may take him three cans of Red Bull to help him swallow all of it.
Sure, the Tar Heels withstood an hour storm delay in a small visitors’ locker room, sat out Giovanni Bernard with a still-sore knee and played with a dinged up center and ding-donged quarterback after Bryn Renner had his bell rung in the second quarter of the 28-27 loss at Wake Forest.
But despite uneven play all afternoon that included eight penalties and a bunch of other miscues, they still had the game in hand and could not finish the job. That has happened to so many Carolina football teams over the last 15 years that the Tar Heels have not won more than eight games in any season since 1997. And, if you watch the NFL, you know how many players they have sent into pro football during that span.
Man, this one was a heartbreaker for a new coach trying to help us forget old reminders. Fedora’s team mangled his mantra by playing not so fast, TOO physical at times and not very smart at all. Hopefully, this can be one giant teaching moment for Fedora and his staff because if you can truly learn from defeat this was the mother lode of losses.
Carolina actually played gallantly for much of the afternoon in Winston–Salem, taking the lead on Eric Ebron’s acrobatic TD catch in the first quarter and shutting down the Deacons for all but the last five minutes of the second half. But when it came down to making the drive-sustaining or drive-stopping plays, the Heels were as imperfect as they looked perfect last week against little ol’ Elon.
In the second quarter, with a 7-point lead, cornerback Jabari Price made a great tackle for loss that set up a third-and-long for the Deacons. Wake’s lefty QB Tanner Price, who proved sensational all day, hit his favorite receiver Michael Campanaro over the middle for a gain that was short of the first down.
The 5-11 Campanaro, Wake Forest’s Wes Welker who finished with 13 catches for 164 yards, begged the officials for a horse-collar penalty on the play and got it. A few downs later, Price picked up a dribbled snap and took the broken play in for the tying touchdown.
The Tar Heels went back in front on a drive, ironically, that could have cost them the game. Renner ran right and a saw a seam to the end zone. But his teammates did not hold their blocks long enough and the Deacons pan caked Renner into what looked like a concussion. He, in fact, waved to the bench for help right after going down. Marquise Williams came in on fourth down and gave it to A.J. Blue for the score. The converted quarterback ran for 106 yards starting for Bernard
After Wake tied the game again, a woozy Renner returned for the next series and while getting hit from behind lost the ball, which Wake turned into a touchdown that provided a 21-14 lead at halftime. The Deacs even obliged the Heels by missing two tries at a field goal as the half ended.
“We really didn’t do anything different at halftime,” a perturbed Fedora said after the game. “It was more of an attitude adjustment. Just go out there and play.”
Play better. And they did, dominating the third quarter with 13 unanswered points and a hundred-yard advantage over the declining Deacs. After freshman Romar Morris, who had 70 yards subbing for Blue, tied the game, the Heels were back in the red zone twice and could only come away with field goals. If either were a touchdown, Wake could not have won.
In fact, after Tim Scott’s interception of Price’s only mistake on the day, the Heels were inside the five when WR Erik Highsmith grabbed the man he was blocking and was called for a holding penalty that pushed Carolina back 10 yards.
So Casey Barth tied his brother Connor for the most FGs in UNC history. When he surpassed him with his next kick, it gave the Tar Heels a six-point lead and their fans who know about Wake Forest at home a stomach ache because the Deacons were still within a touchdown of winning. Wake Coach Jim Grobe has won 61 times on his team’s last two possessions, and he is now 13-2 at home against his three Tobacco Road rivals.

Thrice Carolina got the ball back with that six-point lead and had to punt it away each time. The defense stifled the Deacs, as well, and it looked like the Heels would hang on to go 2-0 on the season.

But then came boners that will have Fedora chewing on his Red Bull can, like the facemask penalty that helped Wake keep its 93-yard winning drive going after Tommy Hibbard’s punt and Kevin Reddick’s tackle pinned the Deacs at their own seven with 5 minutes to play.
And, after Wake scored to go ahead, the personal foul penalty on the kickoff that pushed Carolina back from its 25 to its 12½. From the 25, Renner had a decent shot of picking up the 40 or so yards to put Barth in range to try the winner. But in the shadow of his own goal line, Renner was target practice for the blitzing back shirts.
The Tar Heels were good aggressive for much of the game, sending a number of Wake players to the sideline including star nose guard Nikita Whitlock. But they weren’t always fast enough against a confusing Deacons’ defense and, clearly, not smart enough to avoid the critical penalties, missed tackles and botched blocks.
“You can’t cry over it,” Fedora said, “ you’ve just got to get ready for the next one (at 23rd ranked Louisville Saturday) and hope you learn from your mistakes.”
We can cry over this one, coach, because we’ve seen the ending before.