Carolina may want to work on holding on to the ball a little better. They fumbled on passing plays. They fumbled on rushing plays. They fumbled on a kneel-down play to run out the clock. All in all, UNC fumbled the ball five times, and that's not counting Ryan Houston bouncing the ball off of one of his own blockers before recovering it. Two of those fumbles ended up in the hands of the Scarlet Knights, which, when combined with Bryn Renner's three interceptions, made this game much more interesting than it had any right to be.
Let's start with what worked, the defensive line. They hounded Rutgers QB Chas Dodd all afternoon, sacking him four times and sending him to the ground countless more times. They completely stymied the Knights' running game, which finished with one – that's one, singular – yard rushing on 25 attempts. Only one Rutgers scoring drive started from behind their 35-yard line, and two started in UNC territory. A very impressive performance from the front four.
The offense ran pretty well, when they kept the ball out of the opposing team's hands. Dwight Jones had 135 yards receiving, topped by a 66-yard touchdown reception (and a fumble). Giovani Bernard had a 60-yard touchdown scramble of his own, one of two scores. T.J. Thorpe had a second straight game of good kick returns, averaging 31 yards over five returns (and a fumble). Especially key was a return in the waning moments of the first half that got the Heels to the cusp of field goal range when ordinarily they would just run out the clock. Instead, a pass play allowed Casey Barth to take the field and drill a 46-yarder that would turn out to provide the margin of victory in the game. It was an excellent effort that paid off big for Carolina.
Renner extended his streak of completions to 19, a school record, before throwing the first of three interceptions (he'd also fumble twice). He looked less experienced out there today, and is especially prone to making the bad passing decision when pressured, or throwing a wounded floater easily grabbed by an opponent. Ryan Houston was both less used and less effective today. He only got six carries, and it was the last, a 33-yard run to get the necessary first down for the Heels to run out the clock that counted for his entire forward yardage.
And then there's the secondary. It's often hard to judge them from watching a game on TV; often when they do their job right, the quarterback never even attempts a throw, and their good work is attributed to the passing rush. And it is true that despite one dropped ball on a sure, open route, they held big receiver Mark Harrison to no open looks and no receptions. But they had much less luck with Mohamed Sanu, who tore them apart for 119 yards on 13 receptions, including a spectacular one-handed grab for a touchdown. Four of Dodd's five passes on the final drive were directed at Sanu (he'd catch three) and he looked invincible at times, as the UNC defense overran or just plain didn't notice the receiver as he racked up the yardage.
Even more worrisome were the penalties that often kept Rutgers in the game. UNC was flagged nine times for 94 yards, including critical plays to keep at least two of the Knights' scoring drives alive. They eventually settled down, committing their last infraction, a ten-yard holding penalty that negated a Bernard touchdown, with 1:43 remaining in the third. Still, it was a completely amateur performance out there for most of the game, and not something that will fly against tougher opponents.
Next week the Heels get Virginia at home. The Cavs have their own problems, but manage to storm back and score eleven points in the last 1:36 to beat Indiana. Yes, it's Indiana, but if Carolina makes as many mental mistakes as they did today, they could share the Hoosiers fate.