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Unpredictable Team Fumbles Beginning

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

September 2, 2002

CHAPEL HILL - North Carolina laid an egg big enough to feed the eastern portion of the state in its football opener against Miami-Ohio. The Tar Heels, who were supposed to be weak on defense and strong on offense, defied the odds and reversed those roles in a 27-21 loss at Kenan Stadium. At one point, the defense held Miami on five tries inside the one-yard line, the fifth attempt courtesy of a facemask penalty on fourth down.

“That was incredible,” defensive end Will Chapman said. “We had a lot of guys out there who aren't on the field that much.”

And how did UNC's offense respond to the heroics? It came on the field and promptly turned the ball over to the RedHawks again on an interception. This time Miami scored.

“It's hard to get over that,” Chapman said.

Carolina's defense faced those odds throughout the afternoon, because the offense tied an ACC record with nine turnovers. It did not set a school record, however. UNC fumbled the ball away 14 times against VMI in 1915. Nine turnovers were plenty for the 2002 Tar Heels.

“It seemed out of control out there,” said sophomore tailback Jacque Lewis, one of the few backs who didn't fumble the ball away.

Quarterback Darian Durant, who played so well as a freshman a year ago, fell apart from the start in this one. Durant accounted for six turnovers and opened the door for backup C.J. Stephens, who nearly rallied the team to a victory in spite of itself.

“It was my worst game ever,” Durant said.

The team's performance left coach John Bunting seething, and not just at Durant.

“I really am furious about not allowing us to win a football game the way we should be winning a football game, when we're moving the ball the way we're moving the ball,” Bunting said. “We were moving the ball the way we thought we could.”

For what it was worth, the Tar Heels gained 447 yards of total offense to 379 yards for the RedHawks, just one more testament to how well the Carolina defense performed on an otherwise miserable day.

Bunting said Durant would still be the quarterback at Syracuse, but you can believe this: Durant's leash will be shorter from here on. Bunting stuck with Ronald Curry in 2001 after Curry started the opener against Oklahoma in a similar fashion to the way Durant played this time. But when Curry continued to struggle, he soon found himself sharing the job with Durant. Something similar could happen this fall if Durant doesn't get himself going against the Orangemen.

“We'll take a long look at his performance,” Bunting said. “Darian is a guy we have high expectations of.”

Meanwhile, Lewis earned more playing time in the three-man rotation at tailback. He didn't turn the ball over against Miami, something neither Willie Parker nor Andre' Williams could say. Lewis also performed in superior fashion to the other two. He ran eight times for 31 yards. He broke one run of 20 yards, but his most impressive carry came on a three-yard touchdown run. Lewis scored on guts and determination, fighting through several tacklers to cross the goal line.

“He's a tough cookie,” Bunting said. “We know that about him. What was displayed out there is when we get in a situation like this, that young man is going to be depended upon. If the other guys can't hang onto the ball, let him play.”

Parker, who has shown flashes of excellence at times during this career, continues to live up to his nickname as the Clinton Bypass for his tendency to run east and west. Williams, a hard-hitting bowling ball who probably is the best fit for Bunting's preferred style, doesn't have any trouble running north and south. But he has had fumbling problems since his arrival on campus, and if they continue his playing time will suffer.

Defense Unhappy With Offense

The one thing this team cannot do is turn the ball over with regularity, as it did against Miami. Last year's defense could stay on the field and help overcome those mistakes. As well as the 2002 defense played against the RedHawks, it's obvious that it lacks the bulk to stand toe-to-toe against a strong offensive line and running game all day long.

Miami gained 175 yards rushing, with 137 of those in the second half, when the Carolina defense started to wear down. Miami held the ball for 38 minutes and 17 seconds compared to UNC's 21:43. This Carolina team cannot succeed under such duress.

The season-opening performance was especially tough for the defense. That group has been the subject of all the preseason criticism and speculation of inferiority. And yet it would have been difficult for the defense to play much better than it did on a day when the offense turned the ball over nine times.

“Our defense responded way above my expectations,” Bunting said. “They did a magnificent job. I'm proud of the way everybody hung in there. Nobody panicked. We just kept grinding away.”

That's true, but Bunting will have to guard against resentment building between the two units. The defense had to carry the load for much of last season, and now it's doing it again with eight new starters. Those guys are getting tired of the offense not doing its share.

“It was a terrible feeling, having to constantly go out there on the field,” senior linebacker Malcolm Stewart said. “You want to tell the offense to step it up. I can't really describe the feeling, but I'm tired of it. I'm mad, angry, upset.”

There were plenty of angry people at Kenan Stadium - fans, players and coaches. The promise for this team lay in Bunting's experience and determination. He showed last year that he isn't going to panic, isn't going to ridicule the team and beat it down. He will stay with these guys and keep pushing them to improve.

A year ago, the Tar Heels lost their first three games and looked bad doing it. Then they bounced back to win five consecutive times and eight of their last 10. So you can understand why Bunting scoffed at the suggestion that this game would set a negative tone for the remainder of the season.

“One game never set a tone for a season - never,” Bunting said. “I never believed in that one single bit.”

Bunting said he would stew over the Miami game for less than 24 hours. After that, he was moving on to Syracuse, and he expected the team to be with him.

“I'm not going to dwell on this game,” Bunting said. “We've got to go on. We've got a long season ahead of us.”

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