UNC mistake-prone but still convincing in 40-20 win over Middle Tennessee

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 7, 2013 

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    --UNC allowed 65- and 75-yard touchdowns in its loss against South Carolina, and so eliminating big plays was a focus for the Tar Heels. They succeeded, mostly, against Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders scored on a 22-yard run early in the third quarter, but they didn’t have an offensive play longer than 29 yards.

    --Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner spread the ball around efficiently on Saturday. Twelve UNC receivers caught passes, and Sean Tapley and Eric Ebron each caught four to lead the team. Tapley finished with four catches for 93 yards, and Mark McNeill’s 59-yard reception in the second quarter was the longest offensive play of the game.

    --UNC had success on Saturday with its trio of kickers. Thomas Moore, the team’s field goal kicker, made both of his attempts. Nick Wieler, who handles kickoffs, forced touchbacks on four of his eight kickoffs. And Tommy Hibbard, the punter, averaged 42.5 yards on his four punts.

    --UNC debuted a new pattern in its end zones on Saturday. Well, at least it was new for a game that counted. The Tar Heels’ end zone lettering featured an argyle pattern - one similar to the stripe that runs down UNC’s basketball uniforms. The end zone pattern debuted for the first time during the spring football game in April.

    -Andrew Carter

— North Carolina won a game Saturday against Middle Tennessee State, a 40-20 victory that came relatively easily after a suffocating defeat against South Carolina, but the Tar Heels also played a game within a game – a battle against themselves in which they were at their best and their worst, often moments apart.

One minute, the defense appeared inept against the Blue Raiders, who moved efficiently on their first drive and were inches from crossing the goal line and taking an early lead at Kenan Stadium. The next minute, UNC safety Tre Boston ended the threat, intercepting a pass in the end zone.

One minute, the Tar Heels (1-1) finished a dominant second quarter and took a 23-0 lead entering halftime. The next, the Blue Raiders (1-1), who did nothing offensively in the first half after their first drive, marched down the field and scored an easy touchdown to start the third quarter.

One minute, the Tar Heels were in complete control with less than 15 minutes to play. The next, they fumbled on their first drive of the fourth quarter, and Middle Tennessee returned it for a 25-yard touchdown that cut UNC’s lead to 26-13.

Not even the coin toss came easily for the Tar Heels, whose baffling mishandling of it allowed Middle Tennessee to receive the kickoff at the start of the game and at the start of the third quarter. Coach Larry Fedora tried to joke about that afterward, saying it was all part of the strategy. The humor, though, belied his frustration.

“To have that type of miscommunication and that happen in a game, that’s a big thing,” he said. “Can’t happen.”

Strange things did happen, though, for the Tar Heels. The least among them was the success of UNC’s passing offense, which generated 377 yards. The Tar Heels, as expected, took few chances downfield during their season-opening loss against South Carolina and the Gamecocks’ intimidating defensive front.

That changed against the Blue Raiders, who last season ranked among the worst defensive teams in the nation. Bryn Renner, UNC’s senior quarterback, took advantage of the space Middle Tennessee allowed his receivers, who routinely ran open.

“That’s who we are,” Fedora said of the success of the passing game. “So we pushed the ball down the field a little bit more. Made some plays – made some explosive plays.”

Seconds after praising his passing offense, Fedora questioned the relative lack of success of UNC’s running game. It was, as senior running back A.J. Blue said, a “decent” day – but not an especially memorable one.

Of UNC’s 511 yards of offense, 134 came on the ground. The Tar Heels averaged a meager 3.3 yards per carry. The highlight was Romar Morris’ 26-yard touchdown run on UNC’s first drive, set up by Boston’s interception, but outside of that no other running back ran for more than nine yards on a play.

“We just have to create more big plays,” said Morris, who gained 46 yards on 10 carries, and also scored on a 1-yard run in the second quarter. “Me, A.J. and Khris (Francis) – we have to create more big plays down the field. Make the second and third level miss.”

The positives were encouraging: Renner completed 23 of 34 passes for 339 yards and a touchdown. The Tar Heels scored on all five of their trips inside the Middle Tennessee 20-yard line, and four of those trips ended in touchdowns. The Tar Heels’ defense forced four turnovers.

Yet there was plenty for Fedora to bemoan, too, from the very start – the mishap with the coin toss – to the very end, when the Blue Raiders crossed the 400-yard mark on their way to a meaningless touchdown in the final minute.

“Coming out of halftime is always difficult,” defensive end Kareem Martin said. “And I think that going forward, we have to come out with a lot more energy in the second half, especially when we’re kicking the ball off to them.”

Though the Tar Heels were their own worst nemesis at times, they played in victory the way they could only hoped to have played in defeat at South Carolina. Against the Gamecocks, the Tar Heels didn’t often have time to run their preferred offense. By design, they settled for quick side-to-side passes.

Saturday, Renner said, “We came out with a game plan that we wanted to be aggressive, and kind of attack them a little bit, and I think we did that.”

After Middle Tennessee’s first drive, it gained 21 yards the rest of the first half. UNC scored touchdowns on three of its first five drives and, by halftime, the Tar Heels were well on their way. Victory came without much of a struggle, although from the beginning, UNC’s greatest challenge might have been getting out of its own way.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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