Saturday, September 18, 2010

Saturday a reminder of what matters to UNC in football

Saturday was a brilliant day for college football in Chapel Hill. Hot, sunny, the home opener, and the defending ACC champions, Georgia Tech, visiting Kenan Stadium. It was a good reminder of what North Carolina does, and does not, want from the sport.

The crowd was strong – late arriving, as is typical, but still plenty vocal. The student sections were packed with light blue and roared throughout the contest. There were some pockets of empty seats, but overall, from a UNC perspective, there was enthusiastic support for a program struggling to generate a positive headline.

There wasn’t much grumbling about the NCAA and academic investigations. All that is there, of course, but the mood overall was more festive – glad to be back in Kenan Stadium, alums glad to be back on camps, and everyone curious to see how this team might respond in light of the LSU loss. But even when Carolina lost at the end of the contest, there was little anguish. The Tar Heels are 0-2 and any hopes for a big season are gone, and UNC fans sort of shrug and say, OK, well, fine.

That’s the way it usually is for Carolina, and it’s an interesting point. Carolina fans don’t agonize all week over the football team’s foibles. Monday morning comes and it is on to other things. Also Saturday, Alabama arrived in the Triangle, with all the passion and zaniness that does with Tide football. Bama fans get speechless over losses to Auburn and fire coaches who let Duke take halftime leads.

The contrast in Chapel Hill was stark. Football, for UNC fans, is entertainment. They are not the dispassionate, snooty group some make them out to be, but they don’t want to lose, either. What they really don’t want is for the football program to embarrass the school, and the fact that 12 starters were missing still felt bizarre. I saw one UNC fan on Franklin Street pointing to a poster of the Carolina team and naming all the starters who were held out.

What’s left is a team with talent but lacking in experience, and that killed Carolina against Georgia Tech. What really tilted this game was how the Yellow Jackets explointed the Tar Heels’ young secondary. Carolina is without all four starters in that crew, and Tech chewed up big yardage when it got through the front seven.

You  just didn’t see UNC cornerbacks or safeties coming up to close down plays, and you definitely didn’t see them prepared the few times Georgia Tech threw the ball.

UNC has amazing linebackers. Zack Brown is a force, and he can’t even get on the field. Bruce Carter, Quan Sturdivant and Kevin Reddick are superb – exactly the type of superior linebackers UNC could never field under John Bunting. The front four is talented, although Carolina desperately misses the backside pursuit that makes Robert Quinn such a talent.

There is still talent on this team. T.J. Yates is a quality quarterback, Johnny White held onto the ball and showed some real burst and the offensive line is light years ahead of last year. True freshman James Hurst, who wears No. 68, got the first of what will be many starts for UNC at left tackle, and there was a reason Carolina ran so often to his side. The receivers are deep and swift, although Dwight Jones has to learn to hold onto the ball even when a safety is on him.

What’s left this year is a good team, and not a great one. What’s also left are five home games, five chances for fans to enjoy being in Kenan and on campus. Sure, North Carolina would love to compete on the national stage – who wouldn’t? – but what Carolina fans really want is a team, and a game-day experience, they can feel good about.

This season, if nothing else, has been a reminder of that.

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