October 14, 2002
CHAPEL HILL At Wake Forest, there is a starting quarterback (senior James MacPherson) who defines vanilla, rarely makes big plays, isn't a very accurate passer and barely leaves a mark in most statistical categories. At North Carolina, there is a quarterback (sophomore Darian Durant) who is a thrill a minute, regularly makes big plays, is an extremely accurate passer and ranks among ACC and/or NCAA leaders in passing yards, passing efficiency and total offense. If football ever adopts the Stableford scoring system sometimes used in golf tournaments, in which great plays are generously rewarded but major errors are only lightly punished, MacPherson would be in Division I-AA somewhere and Durant would be a Heisman candidate. Unfortunately for UNC, no such movement is in the works.
As it stands, MacPherson is a winner and Durant a loser in the one category that matters most: wins. Wake's QB is 8-6 as a starter for the Demon Deacons over the last two seasons. Durant, used mainly in relief of senior Ronald Curry last year, is 2-6 as a starter for the Tar Heels over the last two seasons. This from a player who already has set or tied numerous UNC records and apparently is headed for many more if he can hold onto his job, and if (remember the transfer reversal?) he remains in the program.
So how does this kind of thing happen? Why does it happen?
The short answer is that in football, unlike in the Stableford scoring system, large errors mean an awful lot. They often are the turning points the undeniable moments of truth in close games. Even when they're not, they usually have a heavy impact. Gridiron coaches at every level say it all the time: It's very difficult to figure out a way to win a game when you spend a lot of time trying to give it away.
MacPherson, despite his many faults, is amazing in his ability to dodge such egregious errors. Durant, despite his wonderful skills, can't seem to avoid them. MacPherson has thrived as the key ball-handler in the Demon Deacons' multi-pronged, ground-based attack, executing a variety of handoffs, pitches and reverses almost flawlessly. Durant has dropped exchanges from center, muffed handoffs and lost fumbles on numerous plays when he wasn't touched by a single defender. MacPherson rarely has left an opponent feeling like his mistakes contributed heavily to their victory. Durant has done so regularly, on a team that lacks the talent and experience to overcome such things.
The momentum swings that do happen in football, you've got to be able to handle those, UNC coach John Bunting said. Sometimes, with the youth of our team, we don't handle those things well. Until we learn how to do those things, we'll have these types of problems and not be able to overcome them. Ö When things start to go wrong for us, we kind of lose the ability to pull it together.
Most recently, against top-25 N.C. State, Durant ruined an otherwise solid 266-yard, two-TD performance and possible upset with one horrendous play. The Tar Heels were leading 17-13 midway through the third quarter. The maligned UNC defense, after holding the Pack to seven points in its most impressive half of play all season, had just come off the field after yielding a brutal, ground-based, 70-yard touchdown drive that cut the lead to four.
Kenan Stadium rocked in the first half and early in the second, but the momentum of the game was shifting back to the Pack. The defense, especially key tacklers (middle linebacker Doug Justice, safety Dexter Reid) who stayed on the field while most other positions rotated, desperately needed a break. The offense, starting from its own 20 after the kickoff, needed something good to happen not necessarily a score, but something positive, even a few first downs to improve field position and give the defenders a rest.
Suddenly, on a scramble toward the sideline while trying to make something happen, Durant simply dropped the football. He had been jostled while coming out of the pocket, but there was no contact on the fumble. N.C. State recovered at the four-yard line, then scored on the next play, giving the Pack 14 points on just 24 ticks of the clock. The Tar Heels, though down just 20-17 with plenty of football ahead, were never the same team.
I tried to get rid of the ball, Durant said. It just slipped out of my hands.
That's a big, big play in the game, Bunting said. And anybody that plays the quarterback position knows that.
It was devastating, Durant said. It's one thing to fumble in their territory. But it's another thing to fumble in ours. And then to fumble in the red zone. Ö
This is becoming Durant's story. When he's good, he really good, capable of doing positive things in the passing attack that are beyond the wildest dreams of most ACC quarterbacks. When he's bad, though, he's perfectly capable of costing his team the game.
Terrible: Run Defense, Turnovers
In the Tar Heels' 2-4 start, Durant make huge, game-breaking plays in both wins and huge, game-changing errors in at least three of the losses.
Give the guy credit for this: In terms of his ability to move his team down the field quickly or enable it to come back from a large deficit, he may be as good as any quarterback in UNC history. (The Heels have a ridiculously poor QB tradition, but that still has to count for something.) At Syracuse, he directed two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in a 30-22 win, completing 19 of 34 passes for two TDs and no interceptions. At Arizona State, he was phenomenal: 25-for-40 passing for a school-record 417 yards and five TDs (tied school record). His 426 yards of total offense also set a school mark. In both games, Carolina probably would have lost without him.
Meanwhile, in UNC's nine-turnover, 27-21 debacle against Miami-Ohio, Durant threw three interceptions and was involved in two fumbles. In the 52-21 loss to Texas, while the game was still interesting, he threw a pair of interceptions in the red zone; both were basic, fail-to-read-the-safety tosses rather than those of the more unpredictable, tipped-ball variety. Then came the crucial error in the 34-17 defeat by N.C. State. It's likely that the Tar Heels would have lost to the Longhorns (271 rushing yards) and the Wolfpack (258) anyway the team's horrendous run defense remains the chief story of its season but it would have been very interesting to see those two games unfold without such unacceptable errors at such crucial moments.
So Durant remains an enigma. He's an exciting playmaker and one of the most accurate passers anywhere, whether over the middle to his outstanding tight ends or down the sidelines to his talented wideouts. He throws the kind of beautiful, soft, catchable ball receivers talk about with wide smiles. He's poised in the pocket and usually seems immune to pressure. But he also panicked at times early this fall, sometimes focusing too much on star senior Sam Aiken and uncharacteristically forcing balls into coverage. Perhaps in trying to compensate for a porous defense, he's pressing. Whatever the case, he's making far too many crucial mistakes.
While five of UNC's last six games (all but FSU) still appeared winnable, despite the team's many faults, the Tar Heels were no sure bet to avoid a 2-10 disaster, either. Either way, this much appears likely: Durant will win some more, he'll lose some more, and he'll probably drive Bunting and his teammates crazy along the way.
Saturday Sports Injury Clinic