Fans saw two games played last night. The first was a near-absolute disaster, the second a nail-biter where UNC almost made up for their earlier mistakes. Down thirteen players, however, it wasn't enough to get the Heels a win.
Let's start with were the suspensions and indefinite statuses hurt Carolina the most. First, there was special teams. LSU tore the Heels up on kickoff and punt returns. The Heels' depleted roster obviously moved a lot of special teams players to full time roles in the defense, and the resulting carnage was brutal. Patrick Peterson alone had 244 return yards in the first half, 87 of which came on punt return for a the touchdown that killed UNC's momentum in the first half. Casey Barth, as the last line of the kicking defense, had three tackles on the night, and the Tigers started three non-turnover obtained possessions in UNC territory.
Of course, their first two possessions also started within the UNC 30, thanks to fumbles on two of UNC's first four plays. Johnny White coughed it up on his first run from scrimmage, and T.J. Yates bobbled a snap a scant two plays later. The fact that they came out of those series only down 7-0, with Bruce carter and Quan Sturdivant having yet to take the field was the only thing resembling good news to that point. That T.J. Yates followed with two air-based scoring drives, with some help from LSU penalties to make it 10-7, made you think UNC could actually pull this off.
That hope died quickly. The rest of the first half consisted of a bad snap resulting a safety, two long touchdowns where the secondary got burned, once on the ground and once in the air, and Peterson's aformentioned touchdown return. The Heels went into the half down 30-10 and looking shellshocked. Worse, Johnny White, who despite having 8 carries for 29 yards was still the primary back, would not return to the game as a result of injury. UNC was depleted, out of sync, and had no chance, and the third quarter beared that out, as the Heels' three rush-heavy drives all ended in punts.
However, the third quarter had the short-handed defense stepping up and taking control, forcing two three-and-outs and recovering a fumble forced by Tre Boston on the UNC 12. LSU would not score the rest of the game, and have only one sustained drive. Even the special teams came alive, holding returns to under fifteen yards and often electing to have Grant Shallock kick it out of bounds.
Which is how finally, in the fourth quarter, liberated by the clock from using the running game or giving Yates the time to have his offensive line collapse on him, Carolina returned to a passing offense, first burning the LSU secondary on the longest touchdown play in Carolina history, a 97 yard pass to Jheranie Boyd to cut the lead to 30-17. This was followed by a five-minute drive where Yates went 7 of 11 through the air and escaped another fumbled snap to find Erik Highsmith for a 14-yard touchdown. One successful onside kick later - and who would expect a successful onside kick from this special teams squad - and UNC was sitting on their own 40 with 2:32 left to win the game.
Naturally, that drive ended with a fourth down fumble after Yates was hammered from his blindside; this would have ended the game had the Heels' defense forced another fumble, this one scooped up by Quan Sturdivant who really wanted to take it in himself. Alas, he left UNC with 73 yards to go and 1:08 in which to do it. Yates covered the first 67 in just under a minute with five completions, but with two tries at the end zone from the LSU 6, the first pass was just too far behind Zach Pianalto, and the second found him covered too tightly to pull the ball in. Carolina was left with talk of moral victories and if-only thoughts about dropped first half touchdown passes, along with a long trip back to Chapel Hill.
As for me, I don't know what to think. The defense, a couple of secondary lapses aside, definitely stepped up and brought a lot of true freshmen up to speed quickly. Tre Boston in particular caught on quickly, with an interception and forced fumble. The rushing game was abysmal, the best performance coming from Anthony Elzy, returning to the fullback role he lost to Ryan Houston. The passing game showed promise, with Boyd totaling more yards than he managed all last season, and Pianalto turning in to a reliable, if over relied-on option at tight end. But the offensive line showed little improvement over last season, and the three bobbled snaps resulted in almost the margin of victory by themselves. Special teams was, of course, a disaster, but that can be fixed, and the heart shown in the second half is some of the best I've seen from this team in a decade. UNC gets a week off before Georgia Tech, a schedule I thought originally was disastrous, but now necessary to resolve the status of the six players still in limbo. UNC may have reverted into a 2007 or 2008 state with the youth on defense, but with a senior quarterback and a steady hand, they may just make a season out of this yet.