by Lee Pace
The first half of the Tar Heels' game at Louisville Saturday had taken on the hideous flavor of other infamous Carolina road trips of the last 15 years-Florida State in 2000 (down 36-7 at intermission), Virginia in 2004 (throttled 35-10), Clemson in 2006 (whitewashed 35-0), and right back here in Louisville in 2005 (battered 38-7). The question at such junctures for the winning team is this: Can you retain your intensity and keep the pressure on for 30 more minutes? And for the losers it's gut-check time, a chance to inventory your pride, heart, resolve and ability to quickly determine what's fixable within the 20 minutes until the second-half kick-off.
"We played about as bad as we can play," Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora said, walking off the field with his team trailing 36-7.
Louisville scored on all six possessions. It was headed to a 720-yard total offensive game if you extrapolate the stats. Senior linebacker Kevin Reddick missed a free shot on Cardinal QB Teddy Bridgewater in the first quarter, Bridgewater then stepping up and connecting on a 32-yard scoring pass. The Tar Heels had two turnovers on offense and lost 24 yards on a center snap flying over QB Bryn Renner's head. They had minus-16 yards rushing in the first quarter.
"I was not calm, I'll say that," Fedora said of his demeanor in the halftime locker room. "I was disappointed in the effort and enthusiasm with our team in the first half. That's not who we are, we can't play that way. Nobody can play that way. You have to play with energy and enthusiasm and passion. That's what the game is all about."
"It's been a long time since I've been in a game like that where I've felt ashamed, humiliated, embarrassed at the way we were playing defensively," added co-defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. "We couldn't stop the run, couldn't stop the pass, we weren't even a good scout team."
Certainly one problem for the Tar Heels was adjusting to the Cardinals' speed. Louisville coach Charlie Strong has built his program around recruiting Florida fleetness afoot (nearly one-third of his roster hails from the speed-rich Sunshine State). Tar Heel offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said last week that defensive end Marcus Smith was a "freak of nature" with his size and swiftness and said all of the Cardinals' ends run "like a sprint-relay team." Koenning said watching tape of the Cardinals reminded him of the late-1980s/early 1990s Miami Hurricanes. Nowhere on the Tar Heel defensive roster can you find the swiftness on the edge that Louisville possesses, thus preseason scrimmages of "good vs. good" in the Tar Heel camp were of no help to the offense in developing a feel for a similar challenge to come.
Another issue was a nasty spiral of downward momentum. One mistake breeds another. An offensive miscue puts the pressure on the defense. A porous defense puts the gun to the offense's head, demanding a perfect seven points every possession. The Tar Heel sideline in the first half was a compendium of somber faces, hung heads, coaches appealing with various degrees of psychology and grease-board frenzy.
"The game of football, you've got to put out a lot of energy, play with energy and enthusiasm," Fedora said. "When you keep giving up play after play after play, eventually you just don't have it any more. I think that's what happened early in the game with the defense."
"It's hard to put a finger on it," Koenning adds. "It's one guy this play, one guy the next play. Our team right now has some confidence issues. Superman knows he's Superman. We're not Superman on defense. Part of coaching, though, is getting guys to play like Superman. That's our job, getting our guys to believe they can make plays. It's all part of the process."
One change the defensive staff went to in the third quarter was to essentially limit its game plan to two personnel groups and two calls within each. What it continued to do, though, was to send Reddick after Bridgewater frequently (he blitzed on 40 of Louisville's 71 snaps), and to use Tommy Heffernan as the first-team weakside linebacker. Koenning said last week he had "made a move to shake up my room," which led to Heffernan earning his first start of the season.
Heffernan's father, Dave, is a Miami attorney and a former offensive tackle for the Hurricanes in the early 1980s, just before Butch Davis arrived there as an assistant coach. Heffernan and Davis became friends later as Heffernan was working as a radio commentator during Davis's successful run as UM head coach in the late 1990s. That connection opened the door for Tommy to walk-on to the Tar Heels' roster in fall of 2010. He has since earned a full scholarship.
On Saturday Heffernan had 12 tackles as registered by the scorekeeper in the press box, but Koenning said the count via his study of the game tape had Heffernan in on 21 stops.
"Tommy did a nice job, he played a whale of a game," Koenning said. "He played really fast. He wasn't perfect. He's not going to be a physical tackler, because he's 220 pounds. But he's playing really hard."
Louisville took the kick-off for the second half, forged its way to the Carolina 20 yard-line, where it gambled on fourth-and-1. Heffernan read the handoff to tailback Senorise Perry, stepped up in the "B Gap" and made a swift, decisive tackle for a loss of one yard, his long brown hair flapping in breeze like he was Clay Matthews or somebody.
Finally, something good happened for the Tar Heels.
The offense built on those good vibes with a methodical 11-play drive augmented on Anderson's plan to take advantage of Louisville's speed by letting its speedsters come at Renner, then dink screen passes over their heads. The Tar Heels have some speed of their own, and slot receiver Sean Tapley put his to excellent use by turning a pair of consecutive short throws into gains of 25 and 21 yards. They set up a two-yard toss to Eric Ebron for the score.
Fortified by its fourth-down success a few minutes earlier, the defense took the hint of a good vibe back onto the field. And for the second series in a row, it stopped the Cardinals, Reddick sacking Bridgewater on third down with a nifty one-hand tackle. When the offense responded with another touchdown, the score was now 39-21. Football was becoming fun again for Carolina. Louisville, meanwhile, had lost its focus, with several thousand fans having departed and those that remained having their lost their thirst for Tar Heel blood.
"Rhythm, we finally got in a rhythm," receivers coach Gunter Brewer said. "Offense is all about rhythm, one play feeding off the last. You could feel it building, one side of the ball helping the other and coming together as a team."
One sensed as the second half of Fedora's third game evolved that it was time for a new storyline to emerge-one that centered on his fervent passion for special teams play. Fedora and his coaches have played a vanilla hand in the kicking game so far, primarily because they're still teaching the basics early in their tenures and also because depth and injury problems have forced them to constantly realign their special teams depth charts. It was heartening to see, though, how well the point-after defense team adjusted to Louisville's spread formation on its first extra point attempt and then stymied the Cardinals' pass attempt for two points.
The coaches spotted some softness up the middle of Louisville's punt team and figured that Romar Morris, one of the team's special teams warriors through August camp and its first two games, could break through for a block. Problem was, Louisville didn't punt until the middle of the fourth quarter. Sure enough, Morris slithered and slammed through the middle of the Louisville shield and blocked the punt, and soon after Norkeithus Otis hammered the ball loose from a Cardinal kick-off return. The first recovery set up Tar Heel touchdown that pulled Carolina within five at 39-34; the second one gave Carolina a chance to win the game with just over four minutes left.
"We had two big plays, game-changing plays, in the special teams," Fedora said. "A goal was to have one game-changing play. Because of what happened in the first half, we needed more than that. Those two plays gave us an opportunity to win the game."
Anderson called a quarterback draw for Renner on third-and-goal at the Cardinal three, and with double-coverage on Ebron and single coverage on three more receivers, the odds of spreading the defense out enough to slip him into the end zone were good. But Ebron came out of his stance, prompting a false start penalty. On fourth-and-eight, Louisville's Andrew Johnson knocked the ball out of Erik Highsmith's grasp in the end zone and pulled Highsmith's helmet off by the facemask in the process.
Highsmith first appealed for a penalty flag, then stood motionless in the end zone for a moment, his fists clenched, his head bowed back, his helmet five yards away on the ground, the ball four yards away and the Cardinals celebrating en masse all around him. On the sideline, Fedora grimaced and clasped his hands around the back of his head. The steam was still coming out of everyone's ears well into the night as they digested the misery of a first-half gone awry and a near-miracle comeback.
Lee Pace (email@example.com) has written Extra Points since 1990 and has reported from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network since 2004.