October 23, 2007
CHAPEL HILL The first half of the football season will be remembered at North Carolina for how agonizingly close the Tar Heels came to having a winning record heading into the final five games of the season.
Carolina (2-5) lost four games by a total of 18 points.
No loss, however, will be more haunting than the 21-15 defeat to South Carolina at Kenan Stadium on Oct. 13, because the Tar Heels had the Ol' Ball Coach on the ropes in the second half and let him slip away.
There has not been a more hated enemy football coach at UNC than Steve Spurrier. He took a Duke team to Chapel Hill in 1989, defeated UNC 41-0 and took a picture of the Blue Devils beneath the scoreboard when the game ended.
For Butch Davis, the first-year Carolina coach, all of that was history, a past that probably meant little to him. He is concerned about the here and now, and what he saw from his defense in the second half of the USC game was encouraging for the remainder of this season and the long-term future.
"The defense was spectacular," Davis said. "If you had told me before the game started that South Carolina was going to be 1-of-12 on third-down conversions, I would say we would have a great chance of winning this game. The unfortunate thing was, we gave up big plays in the first half.
"A little bit of it were some of the coverages we were playing. We made some adjustments with some of the alignments. But probably the biggest thing was we played the run better. We got them in longer yardage. In the first half, it seemed like all the second downs were second-and-two, second-and-four. In the second half, they were in a lot longer down-and-distance situations."
Spurrier is renowned for his skills as an offensive coach, yet the Tar Heels shut out the Gamecocks in the final two quarters. Had UNC's offense been able to take advantage of the many opportunities created in the second half, North Carolina could have left the stadium a winner.
As it was, Davis ran off the field pumping his fist at the student section because of the support the crowd showed from start to finish. This was no ordinary UNC crowd, nor has it been throughout this first season under Davis. The game against the Gamecocks and Spurrier epitomized how Davis has sparked the imagination of the fans. After nine years of mismanagement, suspect coaching and recruiting, genuine hope is alive and well in Chapel Hill.
So just after Davis entered the tunnel leading to the Tar Heels' locker room, the crowd, still packed into Kenan, arose and gave the team a standing ovation in appreciation for the effort and passion they had shown, despite losing the game.
"I almost started crying," senior defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer said of the standing ovation. "I felt sorry we let them down, but it felt great they still believe in us. They could have left easily in the first half, when things weren't going our way, but they stayed and they believed."
One has to remember that this is a fan base notorious for arriving late and leaving early, and often sitting on its hands in between. So that in and of itself was an advancement for Davis and his budding program. Now he has to take what his young team has been doing on the field and go at least one step further when it returns to play against Wake Forest on Oct. 27.
The UNC staff used its open week to examine every part of the team and see what could be improved, what should be tossed out, and how to turn close losses into victories down the stretch.
"We're going to kind of approach this week in three phases," Davis said as UNC prepared for its break. "A significant amount of it is going to be us looking at us from a coaching standpoint. We're going to dissect this entire football team. From a computer standpoint, all the down-and-distance tendencies, the personnel groupings and how we're calling games, that makes up a certain element of it.
"We want to realistically look at our football team and say, Here is where we are today. Here are the things we're doing well and not doing well.' Are they things that are fixable now, or should we just get rid of it, and just not try to do some of those things so that we can give our kids the best opportunity over these next five games to play the most efficient that we can and have the most success that we can?"
STARTERS MUST REMAIN HEALTHY
Health will be a key, as it is with so many football teams at this time of year.
Wide receiver/return specialist Brandon Tate suffered a concussion against South Carolina. He has become one of the finest weapons in the ACC. He has scored on kick returns, pass receptions and running plays this season. He is an electric player who has learned to run as much with his eyes as with his fast feet.
These are the kinds of losses this UNC team just does not have the depth to overcome during a lengthy period of time. The Tar Heels nearly did it against South Carolina because freshman receiver Greg Little emerged in such a big way, but to win games down the stretch, the various injuries that have limited the staff's hand lately will need to heal and give the coaches their front-line players once more.
"Part of us getting better is trying to get some of these well: (wide receiver) Brooks Foster, (wide receiver) Hakeem Nicks, Brandon," Davis said. "We have a lot of guys who have sucked it up. Kentwan Balmer played with somewhat of a significant ankle sprain (against USC) and did an excellent job. We've got 12 or 15 guys who are way less than 100 percent, but they sucked it up and played in the game. Hopefully, we can get some of those guys near 100 percent."
If so, Davis is hopeful that a combination of scheme adjustments and healthier players will push the Tar Heels past close losses to victories down the stretch.