UNC 37, James Madison 14

What a game. I know that the opponent was James Madison, but the atmosphere in Kenan Stadium was the best I’ve seen in a while, especially in the first half.

Some observations from the game…

Offense:

  • T.J Yates did a very good job in this game. He completed 13 of his 18 passes for 220 yards and 3 touchdowns. Aside from his first quarter interception, he didn’t seem to make any ill-advised throws, and considering last year’s QB situation, that alone is a huge improvement.
  • Of course, Yates has the benefit of some great receivers to throw to. Brooks Foster repeated last season’s good form, catching 4 passes for 87 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the 65-yard TD catch and run on their third play from scrimmage that blew the doors open. Brandon Tate was just as deadly at receiver as he is on special teams, catching two passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. Hakeem Nicks, Greg Little, and Kenton Thornton also caught passes from the wide receiver position.
  • The running game is still a bit of a weakness. Johnny White was UNC’s best every-down back in this game, rushing the ball 12 times for 49 yards, just over 4 yards per carry. With the exception of Anthony Elzy, who was effective in goal line situations scoring both of the Heels’ rushing touchdowns, no one else stepped up in the backfield. They will need to make some adjustments in the running game to do well against better opponents, who will be able to shut down a one dimensional offense.
  • Speaking of running backs, I’m still not quite sure how effective the H-back is or will be in the Tar Heels offense, especially if it’s going to be pass-heavy this season.

Defense:

  • Turnovers. Boy, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this team forcing this many turnovers in a game. I think the secondary may have gotten as many interceptions as they did in all of 2006. (You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I can seriously count the number of interceptions I saw the Heels make last season on one hand and still be able to grab objects with my spare fingers.) If you count the blocked punt, UNC forced four turnovers in this game (though only 10 of our points became of them).
  • Many were expect Marvin Austin to have more impact on defense than any other incoming player. While he did show flashes of brilliance, the standout defensive rookies were in the secondary. Charles had a big day at nickelback against the JMU spread option, recording 9 tackles. Redshirt freshman Deunta Williams had three tackles and an interception, which he returned 45 yards into the JMU red zone.
  • Speaking of safeties: Welcome back, Trimane Goddard. We missed you.
  • Our defense was nothing short of disaster in 2002-2004 and in 2006. This was for two main reasons: 1) we got consistently overpowered at the line of scrimmage, 2) we couldn’t get to the ball fast enough, and 3) when we did, we couldn’t tackle very well. Our 2007 defense appears to have made dramatic improvements in all areas. Austin, Kentwan Balmer, Darrius Massenburg, Cam Thomas, Tavares Brown, and Hilee Taylor consistently asserted themselves at the line, breaking up plays and nearly making a few big plays of their own. The linebackers and defensive backs were able to efficiently pursue the ball carriers, and with few exceptions they made solid tackles. Of course, the Heels D still had weaknesses. They allowed big plays to the outside when the quarterback and running backs managed to escape the pocket. The Dukes scored both of their touchdowns when QB Rodney Landers escaped the pocket in the red zone, and the defense didn’t quite know what to do. That may have to do with a lack of experience more than anything else, but they need to better defend the outside.

Special Teams:

  • It was a big surprise (shocking, even) to see that, for the first time in a while, we have a good punter in Terrence Brown. He averaged over 50 yards per punt, including 52- and 64-yard punts inside the 5 yard line. Having a good punter may not sound very important, but it can give an advantage in field position against almost any opponent. That can often mean the difference between winning and losing.

So what does this all mean? Under normal circumstances, I would say very little. James Madison was a 1-AA opponent, and any performance would not be a very reliable indicator for the future (unless you lose, in which case you’re in deep trouble). But this program needed a boost in confidence, and its fan base needed a reason to be hopeful. We got both on Saturday Night.

Next Week: UNC gets our first real test, as the Tar Heels head to Greenville to face East Carolina.

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