A good team needs to know how to win ugly. Some games, the ball just doesn't bounce your way, or an opponent strings together a better series than expected, or the weather or some other factor beyond a team's control interferes. A good team can put aside a poor performance and undue obstacles and win anyway, even if the score is less than impressive.
That is not what happened today, however. The weather was gorgeous. Louisville played as one would expect, without much of a running game and a freshman scrambling quarterback. The table was set for a rout, and instead Carolina was lucky to go into the half with the game a scoreless tie. Louisville's offense had their way with the Heels in the first half, eating up over twenty-two minutes of clock time and gaining 173 yards. Luckily, their deepest drives into UNC's side of the field ended with missed field goals and a Zach Brown interception; the defense may have been amateur, but they came through in the clutch.
The same couldn't be said about the offense, which only had two first downs in the first half. Louisville was in the backfield stopping Giovani Bernard on almost every rushing attempt, while Bryn Renner was sacked twice and completed only two passes. Only once in the half did UNC cross the fifty, and on that very play Bernard fumbled right back to the Cardinals. Carolina went into the lockers at the half a complete disaster.
To their credit, they came back out a much improved team. The defense forced punts on Louisville's first five possessions of the second half, allowing only one first down and pushing the Cardinals backwards on two series. And though the offense still didn't impress as a unit, they did put together a 53-yard touchdown drive early in the third, helped along by a Louisville offsides penalty when UNC was lining up to kick a field goal. Then in the fourth, Renner found Dwight Jones with a pretty lousy pass that the receiver was able to come back for, wrest away from his defenders and somehow make his way to the end zone. The resulting fourteen-point lead was enough to do in the Cardinals, although Carolina gave them a fighting chance by failing on a fourth-and-three just beyond midfield, allowing their opponent to score a touchdown late.
The bright points of the game by far were Jones and fellow receiver Erik Highsmith. Highsmith has spent most of the season in Jones' shadow, but did a great job today in getting 59 receiving yards out of some less than stellar throws from Renner. It's becoming more and more clear with every passing week how much the duo make Renner look better than he actually is at this stage in his career.
The most confusing point was the complete absence of Ryan Houston. Houston had one carry, late in fourth, despite Bernard having an off first half (he'd finish with 109 yards on 25 carries). I would have expected him to get more opportunities considering the struggles of the first half, but Carolina appears to have completely abandoned the shared time in the backfield strategy of the first few games.
A win definitely beats the alternative, but this was a week for UNC to impress a national audience, and instead they limped their way to the finish. This was the Heels' easiest opponent until they close the season at Duke, and it does nothing to bolster my lack of confidence that this team can challenge for the ACC championship. I hope the team will do better against conference competition, because otherwise there's a very long November in store for this team.