As Brian pointed out in the game recap, the usual disclaimers apply about playing an FCS school in an opening game, but there are plenty of teams across America who opened up with an FCS opponent and did not hand down a 62-0 drubbing.
After two years of uncertainty and controversy swirling around the football program, the new-look Tar Heels opened the Larry Fedora era looking relatively sharp and refreshingly disciplined as they dismantled over-manned Elon early, hanging the 62 points in three quarters and putting it on cruise the rest of the way, allowing second and third-teamers to get lots of quality snaps.
From a fan's perspective, it is hard to find too much to criticize in the bad and ugly portions, and those of you who have read this piece for the past two years may see some unfamiliar folks in the good section. With that in mind, here is the first GBU report of the 2012 season:
Gio Bernard: Are you kidding me? Bernard had 203 all-purpose yards (93 rushing, 100 returning, and 10 receiving) and scored three touchdowns in three different ways in less than a quarter and a half of work. Bernard left the game in the second quarter with a tweaked knee but by that point the matter was decided and there was no need for him to return.
Offensive Line: Not a usual member of the "good" section of the GBU, the O-line looked comfortable in the new schemes. They seemed agile and were making blocks out on the edges. There was only one penalty on this group and the quick nature of the offense meant Bryn Renner was never in any real danger of even being hit. It will be interesting to see them play against a big-time opponent, but for now it is a refreshing change.
Team Defense: Carolina's new 4-2-5 scheme looked pretty good as UNC only allowed Elon to cross mid-field twice, and the second time was only to the Tar Heel 49 yard-line. Sylvester Williams spent plenty of time in the Elon backfield and the secondary actually came up with a number of big plays after spending much of the past three seasons in the burn unit. Again, opposition disclaimer applies but to see the progress in this group is fantastic.
Special Teams: Once more, an area that has not often found itself in the "good" portion of the GBU, Carolina's special teams played an effective game. Casey Barth's return shores up the place-kicking game as he scored 14 points on his own (8 XPs, 2 FGs) and Tommy Hibbard only had to punt twice but his punts were effective. The biggest story of the day was UNC's punt returning, first by Bernard and then by Roy Smith after Bernard left the game. Smith had 127 return yards and Carolina set a school record with 260 punt return yards for the game.
Offensive Balance: Carolina hung 524 yards of offense on Elon, but the interesting thing is the number of players involved in the action. The Tar Heels only attempted 28 passes (as opposed to 46 rushes) but efficiently completed 20 of them, and to an amazing 14 different receivers. UNC looks set in the backfield as Bernard, A.J. Blue, and Romar Morris appear to be able to split the load effectively.
Reverse Plays: OK, this may be nit-picking to fill out this section of the report, but UNC attempted two reverses to Jhay Boyd that pretty much blew up. The third reverse was the end-around pass from Erik Highsmith to Renner for 18 yards. I appreciate the attempt to keep defenses honest, but personally I could do without the Shoop-esque razzle-dazzle.
Attendance: The attendance was generously listed at 50,500 on the hottest, most humid day since the Meet the Heels day a month earlier. I know it's Labor Day weekend and a 12:30 kickoff for TV doesn't help attendance, but some of the early trepidation about the new schemes and new staff should have been put aside after Saturday's performance. When Carolina returns in three weeks to face ECU, I imagine Kenan will be full and rocking.
Red-Zone Turnovers: I am reminded of the scene in Bull Durham where Nuke LaLoosh strikes out the side, only to be told by Crash Davis that his fastball was up and his curveball was hanging, and that in the show he would have been ripped. While it is hard to criticize too much when a team scores 10 times, it is important to note that UNC's two turnovers were in the red zone, and on another occasion Carolina had first and goal and had to settle for a field goal. Against Elon, that's not a big deal. Against the big boys on the schedule, that could be huge.
As important as getting a big win in the season opener is the fact that UNC looks like an entirely different team from the last few years, and I don't just mean in the offensive and defensive schemes. The Tar Heels played with focus and a discipline that has been lacking throughout the recent unpleasantness. Carolina looked particularly weak in the strength and conditioning department last season and despite playing on a hot, humid day and scoring early and often, UNC did not look gassed or like they were getting pushed around. Again, the Heels were not playing Virginia Tech, but it is strides in the right direction and a pleasant change.
Now Carolina hits the road for two weeks against more formidable competition and we will have to see how the evolution of the team goes. Still, it was just about as good as could be hoped for, and for that fans should be happy.