I take that back. The reward may have very well be worth the risk.
Regardless of anything else it was a satisfying, not so much for sending ECU back to Greenville with the loss, but with the way UNC played the game. Butch Davis called it a team effort which means we could make a long list of guys who made huge plays in this one. In the end Davis is right and it is possible UNC provided us with a picture of the kind of team they will be this season. This version of the Tar Heels appears to be a team with an incredible defense and a patient offense led not by any one superstar but an ensemble of players capable of making big plays.
The Tar Heel defense is where things begin and end. Two years ago Patrick Pinkney ripped the Heels for over 400 yards passing as ECU put up 34 points and won in Greenville. This time around the Heels were more than able to keep Pinkney off balanced giving up only two sustained drives of 70 yards or more. Even with those, ECU only scored ten points and got an additional touchdown off a short field provided by a Tar Heel fumble. So far this season UNC has surrendered 33 points in three games. Twenty of those points have come on a short field resulting from a UNC miscue on offense. In short the Tar Heel defense continues to dominate by limiting long drives and that was very much the case versus the Pirates.
With the defense doing their job, the offense showed up to do theirs. At the center of an efficient offensive performance was T.J. Yates whose poise and experience the offense back on track after an atrocious outing last week. Yates had a lot of help and the biggest factor may have been the improved play of the offensive line. Having gone through the full week of practice knowing they would start 0bviously helped Cam Holland and Greg Ellerby. The offensive line opened up holes for the running game and did not surrender a sack. With time to work Yates was able to establish the passing game alongside the running game to give the Heels a balanced effort.
The most encouraging devolopment in this game is the emergence of Erik Highsmith as a legitimate receiving threat. While Highsmith was mentioned through training camp as being impressive, he was not on the two deep depth chart to start the season. The injury to Dwight Jones cracked the door and the continued inconsistency of Greg Little and Joshua Adams swung it wide open. Highsmith was Yates favorite target on the day racking up 113 yards and TD. Little did snag a few catches for 59 yards however the expectation has been he would do more and it simply has not happened. Butch Davis is not one to wait around and the move to use Highsmith as well as Jheraine Boyd. In the case of the latter, his speed resulted in a 59 yard TD play which undoubtedly stirred memories of Hakeem Nicks or Brandon Tate. Boyd and Highsmith have a long way to go to match those two though Highsmith did become the first freshman to go for 100 yards in his first season since Hakeem Nicks. Still, the play we saw today, if it continues at this level, will close the gap between losing two of the best receivers in Tar Heel history.
Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston continue to form a nice one-two punch out of the backfield. Draughn does the lion's share of the work churning out yards while Houston does the short yardage work when needed. Houston is a beast on short downs and if you play in ACC fantasy football, Houston would bring serious points. The total body of work for Draughn and Houston(or maybe we should just call them Houston Draughn when we refer to the UNC running backs) was 145 yards and two TDs.
Concerns? Yeah, the kicking game sucks. Grant Shallock was downright awful all game long averaging a meager 31 yards per punt with a long of 38 yards. On the flip side ECU was getting an average of 48 yards per punt which is a 17 yard swing in field position. UNC was pinned back in their own end entirely too much in this game. ECU punter Matt Dodge did a great job getting off some long punts but Shallock was unable to match him which left UNC battling poor field position most of the first half. In terms of FG kicking, Casey Barth is simply not consistent. So far this season he is 1-3 on FGs 30 yards or more. While I am not as concerned about FGs of more than 40 yards, inside of that range should be nearly automatic. With the Heels up ten against ECU Barth missed a 38 yard FG that could have slammed the door on the Pirates by forcing them to score two TDs. Hopefully Barth will get better because the last thing you want is to regret letting Jay Wooten walk out the door.
Overall this was a nice win and more importantly a win which saw UNC do a lot of good things on both sides of the football. This is a great way to build momentum heading to Atlanta next week for a game that will have major Coastal Division implications.