September 11, 2007
CHAPEL HILL North Carolina lost 34-31 on a last-second field goal at East Carolina in the Tar Heels' second game of the season, but the defeat could not hide the obvious fact that this is a changed program.
Does this mean that UNC will be this year's Wake Forest and compete for the league title? Not even close.
What it does mean is that there is more talent on hand than at any time since the Peach Bowl season of 2001, when Julius Peppers, Ryan Sims, Darian Durant and Ronald Curry highlighted a collection of future professional players.
Even more important, these players are better-trained than any bunch since the last five seasons of Mack Brown's tenure in the 1990s.
It would be exceedingly difficult for anyone to watch a team full of freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores, mixed with a smattering of upperclassmen, compete in the fashion that the Tar Heels did against ECU and say this program has not made strides already.
Few people who have watched UNC since that 2001 season would doubt that the Carolina of just a year ago probably would have lost to the Pirates by two or three touchdowns, if not more. To stay in this game and have a chance to win at the end, which UNC did, the Tar Heels had to execute and do so with self-confidence and determination.
"Last year, it seemed like people weren't into the game," said wide receiver Brandon Tate, who returned a punt for a touchdown and caught two TD passes. "This year, Coach (Butch) Davis gives us motivation all the time. He tells us to go play hard every play don't ever give up, no matter if you're down three touchdowns. You can still come back. Just never give up."
Former UNC coach John Bunting is a loyal alum who worked around the clock in an effort to make the Tar Heels winners again in football. In the end, he finally sorted out the details of recruiting enough to leave Davis a decent core.
In turn, Davis and his staff have infused the team with confidence and expert instruction. The consistent errors of recent years procedure penalties, untimely personal fouls, the inability to get plays into the game on time have mostly disappeared.
Sure, there are still mistakes. How could there not be, with so many first-time players on the field? But they are problems that this team should grow out of as time passes.
What the opening two games showed was that Carolina has made progress.
T.J. Yates, a redshirt freshman, threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns against ECU. He displayed poise beyond his years, decent mobility in the pocket, and an ability to throw deep passes with excellent touch.
UNC apparently has found a quarterback, just not necessarily the one so many recruiting freaks thought it would be. True freshman Mike Paulus probably will not play this year unless there are injuries that force him into the lineup.
One of the more disappointing parts of the ECU game for UNC had to be the performance of Hakeem Nicks, the team's star receiver a year ago as a true freshman. Nicks uncharacteristically dropped a couple of passes he should have caught, and he committed a critical turnover on a fumble that killed a key drive in the second half.
IMPORTANT GOAL: WEEKLY PROGRESS
Because this team is going to compete so hard and, at times, so well, the Tar Heels probably will be involved in quite a few of these electrifying games that come down to the last possession or two. How quickly they can clean up their mistakes on a consistent basis and make the necessary adjustments to the talent on hand will make the difference in which side of the score Carolina ultimately falls on each week.
"Every time this football team plays this year, there is a good possibility that all the games have got a chance to be very much like this (ECU game)," Davis said. "I don't think our football team, by any stretch of the imagination, expects to come and just totally dominate people like we did (in the James Madison opener). They're all going to be knock-down drag-outs."
In spite of the loss to the Pirates, what encouraged Davis and his players immensely was the grit the team showed under pressure. The ECU crowd was outstanding. Yates said the noise was deafening when UNC had the ball, particularly late in the game.
This led to a critical failed exchange between center Scott Lenahan and Yates. The QB recovered his own fumble, but the loss of down and lack of ball movement damaged what could have been the game-winning drive, a drive that was going letter perfect until that moment.
Nonetheless, no matter how often East Carolina fought back to take a lead, Yates and the offense just kept striking in kind.
"There were a lot of times in that game this team could have quit," Yates said. "We didn't. We kept fighting back, and that shows what kind of character this team has."
The new UNC coach agreed and was encouraged by this factor. No, he was not happy about losing, nor did some missed tackles and other mistakes please him. But Davis can see he has a roster of fighters on his side, and as long as that continues, the coaches can work to teach and correct mistakes.
That should give this team a legitimate chance to make significant improvements for the rest of the season.
"They are a good football team," Davis said of the Pirates. "They have great athletes. But one thing I found out about our football team tonight was a little bit about our character. When you're pressed, things are going good early and all of a sudden the tide starts to turn, do you fight back? Are you accountable? Do you go out there?
"I will tell you that every single kid on our football team, every single time they took the field, regardless of whether we were up by 10 or down by 10, it didn't make any difference. They were going out there to compete and play as hard as they can.
"We'll correct the mistakes. We'll try to move on. Once this game is over tomorrow, we'll try to put it behind and be a better football team next week."