Holy crap T.J. Yates!
It is amazing how the last ten minutes of that game changed what I ended up writing in this post. Now, I am not normally one for moral victories but with the way UNC rallied to take two winning shots at the end zone before falling short it is difficult not to have a positive outlook of sorts about this game. Granted there is plenty of issues we can discuss which led to the giant hole UNC almost climbed out of but for a moment let's take a look at the positives.
First of all, T.J. Yates, take a bow son. For all the crap flung in this guy's general direction which included constant thrashing by fans and being booed on the "I am a Tar Heel" video at football games, he did exactly what you expect a senior leader to do. When the team is a facing adversity, he stood up, carried the team on his back, and put the winning TD in the hands of his favorite receiver twice. It was the performance most UNC fans hoped for but none of us were really convinced he was capable of. When you include the added degree of difficulty provided by poor OL play, botch center to QB snaps and missing Greg Little, Yates performance almost takes on an epic nature. For sure his stats do. For the game Yates went 28-46 for 412 yards, three TDs and did not throw an interception. If you had told be Yates would not throw a pick I would have taken but to rack up those numbers on a defense plenty of smart people have called pretty good is worthy of notice. Since we are talking about the passing game, I wonder how Jhey Boyd feels about his coming out party? Boyd collected 221 yards receiving which exceeds his output from the entirety of last season.
Hats off to the defense which, at one point, looked immensely better than the offense despite missing seven starters. LSU ended up with 303 yards of total offense which is respectable given the unit UNC was putting on the field and the fact poor kick coverage/offensive turnovers constantly put them in position where they were defending a much shorter field. Needless to say it was a huge break that Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter were made available for this game. Both players lived up to the hype surrounding them in terms of making key plays. Overall the defense did its job. Granted the LSU offense is not the brightest star in the sky. Still it is difficult to knock the effort of the Tar Heel defense.
Unfortunately we can only view these performances as great efforts for a losing cause. UNC dug itself a massive crater in the first half via poor plays on the offensive line and special teams. On the latter, the suspended players offer some measure of explanation for the special teams debacles. Some of the suspended players would have been part of the coverage team and left it depleted. That being said there was no excuse for some of the braindead moments from players on the field. There is also no excuse for the UNC coaches not making an adjustment to the kicking game. LSU's Patrick Peterson is Brandon Tate dangerous and showed it enough times before the 87-yard TD return that Butch Davis should have opted to do something different in terms of kicking. The coverage on kick returns was simply awful and that is probably the one piece of the puzzle I think may have been different had UNC not lost so many players.
The offensive line on the other hand, specifically the center-QB exchange was shockingly bad. The expectation coming into the season was the Tar Heel OL would be healthy and effective in protecting Yates while opening up the running game. That was not the case tonight. UNC gave up nine points due to an complete inability to snap the football correctly. It was clear the OL was rattled, particularly center Jonathan Cooper who is widely regarded as being a good offensive linemen. In this game Cooper had issues handling the LSU defensive front which in turn led him to make mistakes on the snap. You also got the impressive Yates was not getting enough time from his offensive line which is why John Shoop switched to using short slant passes to avoid leaving Yates in the pocket too long. Sadly, Shoop seemed to forget what worked at points during the game as well.
All in all, it was a strange game. Local media in Atlanta is reporting that UNC fans appear to be happier than the LSU contingent. Earlier I wrote UNC could change the subject about the NCAA probe story by winning this game with a depleted roster. Obviously the Heels fell short but their effort, especially coming from Yates, could have the same impact. There is plenty to be happy about as long as you do not dwell on special teams and offensive line issues. The present hope is Yates can continue to play as he did vs LSU. Add Shaun Draughn, Ryan Houston and Greg Little back into the mix, it is possible this offense exceed expectations.
For UNC fans the feeling coming from this game is one of pride. Hopefully the NCAA will wrap up their business and get the other 13 players on the field sooner rather than later.