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Looking Into Abyss, Team Came Together

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  September 20, 2004 CHAPEL HILL — The North Carolina football coaches and players were, among other things, angry heading into their crucial ACC home game against Georgia Tech — angry at each other, angry at themselves, angry at the world.

After the Tar Heels' surprising 34-13 victory over the Yellow Jackets, punctuated by a team-wide pile of joy in one of the Kenan Stadium end zones, nobody was exactly sure where the anger had gone. Or if it had gone. The Heels (2-1, 1-1), facing subsequent games against (in order) Louisville, Florida State, N.C. State, Utah, Miami and Virginia Tech, were just happy to get a win. Everything else could wait.

"This shows what can happen when you stick together," senior center Jason Brown said. "This is what we're here for. This is how we can play. This is how we should play."

The thrill of victory, as it often does, turned the conversation away from less enjoyable topics. Among them were Carolina's 56-24 embarrassment a week earlier at the hands of Virginia, the thick tension between Bunting and some of his players during the week leading up to the Tech game, and the frustration of an offense whose defensive counterpart again seemed to be stealing away any chance for success.

After their pathetic showing against the Cavaliers in Charlottesville, the players received one of the most severe tongue-lashings of Bunting's four-year career at UNC. Indeed, Bunting's rant in the locker room after the game was so loud that a bunch of reporters standing well outside the room could hear every word clearly. None of the players publicly complained about the coach's comments afterward, and some specifically supported his sentiment, but sources said the incident opened some old wounds regarding what some players perceive as Bunting's impersonal, NFL-style approach.

While the majority of the writers who heard Bunting's comments chose not to print them verbatim, with some editors suggesting that there were some privacy issues involved (because the coach may not have been aware of who could hear him), the Winston-Salem Journal broke ranks and shared Bunting's exact remarks with its readers.

"We've got higher standards than that," Bunting told his players, according to the Journal. "I've put up with this crap for three years. You have to tackle somebody on defense. You have to tackle somebody on special teams. Don't just talk about it. I want guys out on the field who sell out on every play."

In comments Bunting said he didn't understand, Brown said after the Virginia debacle that it was just another example of a game in which too many Tar Heels weren't ready to play. A senior, an all-star candidate, a weight-room fanatic and an intelligent, well-spoken young man, Brown is one of the most respected players on the Carolina team.

"There were a lot of passive faces out there (against Virginia), instead of active faces," Brown said. "There are a lot of guys still playing scared. This is a cruel game. We call ourselves soldiers. But if we were actually on the battlefield, after this performance we'd all be dead."

In the week leading up to the Tech game, Bunting did what he often has done following poor performances: He went to the whip. Fully realizing that he could further alienate any players who already objected to the coach's methods, Bunting ordered more full-contact practices than ever. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Tar Heels practiced in full pads, on Thursday in half-pads. Players complained. Coaches argued. Fights broke out during several drills. Assistant coaches again were asked to play the role of peacemaker, sometimes between Bunting and the players, sometimes between the players themselves.

Personnel-wise, starting linebacker Tommy Richardson was suspended for the Tech game, with junior Jeff Longhany entering the lineup in his place. Two other starters against Virginia, senior cornerback Lionell Green and junior safety Linwood Williams, were replaced by junior Cedrick Holt and sophomore Kareen Taylor against the Yellow Jackets. The other defensive starters remained the same.

Among the hidden heroes of Georgia Tech week was co-defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders. The youthful former Nebraska assistant, lured this spring with a two-year contract, already has earned praise in Chapel Hill for his energetic recruiting and his rapport with the players. After the Virginia disaster, he went to his defensive players, asked them to stick together and believe in their coaches, then told them they were going to beat Georgia Tech if they followed the staff's directions.

They did, and they did.

Now everyone is waiting with interest to see what happens next for the Tar Heels, on and off the field.

Blocking A Fundamental Strength

One of the stranger aspects of Bunting's four-year coaching career in Chapel Hill is that, while the former linebacker's defense often has been an utter embarrassment, the UNC offense has developed into a fundamentally strong unit just as originally planned.

In stark contrast to the defense, the Tar Heels' offense actually mirrors Bunting's hard-nosed, no-nonsense personality quite well. The quarterbacks are taught to honor preparation, execution and game management above all else. The tailbacks absolutely must be willing to initiate contact and capable of holding onto the football. (That's the answer to the persistent why-didn't-Willie Parker-play-more questions.) The receivers must be passionate, effective blockers. (That's why small but exciting playmaker Mike Mason doesn't get more snaps from scrimmage.) The linemen must be smart, tough, physical and fundamentally sound with their technique.

When he arrived in Chapel Hill, Bunting made no false promises about his offensive style. He is not a fan of the Texas Tech-type spread offense. He believes in hard running and strong blocking, and he believes that winning and losing begins at the line of scrimmage. He likes fullbacks and tight ends far more than fourth and fifth wide receivers. Upon taking the Carolina job, he spoke of returning UNC to its beloved tradition of 1,000-yard rushers, which began with his good friend and former teammate Don McCauley in 1969.

Again in stark contrast to the manner in which he has handled his defense, Bunting successfully moved forward with his offensive philosophy by hiring competent assistant coaches who shared his beliefs and then finding the right players to fit his system. Bullish tailback Ronnie McGill and athletic wideout Jesse Holley, the team's best blocker on the perimeter, are good examples of the latter.

Few Carolina fans were excited when Bunting hired former Virginia coordinator Gary Tranquill to lead his offense, but Tranquill has proven to be a very good fit for what Bunting wanted. Tranquill isn't the most charismatic personality, definitely qualifies as old-school (some say vanilla) with his schemes, and actually was considering retirement when Bunting called in 2001. But Tranquill and no-nonsense line coach Hal Hunter consistently have produced units that execute (even, in most cases, against good defenses), block well, compete hard, play smart and show confidence in what they're doing.

The Tar Heels entered the Louisville game with a 2-1 record mainly because of their ability to execute one of the most basic elements of the gridiron: blocking. They entered the season with one of the most experienced offensive lines (83 career starts) in the nation, and they've played like it. Led by senior center Jason Brown, senior tackle Willie McNeill and senior fullback Madison Hedgecock, the Heels physically dominated two of the first three defenses they faced this season, and they came away with two wins as a reward.

In its 49-38 victory over William & Mary, UNC prevented a disaster mainly by sticking to its ground-based game plan and churning out 341 yards and five touchdowns on 45 carries. Against Georgia Tech, the Heels won 34-13 mainly because they blasted the Yellow Jackets for 284 rushing yards and three scores on 47 carries.

In between, Carolina rushed for 135 yards on 35 attempts against Virginia, in an ugly 56-24 defeat that continued to remind UNC fans of the stark contrasts between what has happened on offense and on defense during the Bunting era.