This was one of those rare games that was so night and day between the halves it was completely uncanny. UNC fell behind from the start and trailed 36-7 at halftime. It was a near repeat of the last time UNC faced Louisville at Papa John's Stadium. In that 2005 game, UNC trailed 38-7 at halftime before going on to lose 69-14. However, the second half of this game proved to be a total reversal of the first with the Tar Heels outscoring Louisville 27-3 but coming up one play short in the 39-34 loss.
Needless to say the first half was an unmitigated disaster for the Tar Heels. There are instances where a superior team just dominates a less talented squad to open up a big lead. In this case a good team, like Louisville, played extremely well while everything that could possibly go wrong for UNC did. It was a horrendous half of football in every way. The Tar Heel defense was unable to stop the Cardinals to the tune of allowing almost 10 yards per play. Louisville routinely ran the ball through gaping holes in the line for first downs while Cardinal QB Teddy Bridgewater found receivers wide open. Tackles and assignments were missed in spades so the fact Louisville scored 36 points was a surprise to no one.
Contributing to the huge hole UNC found itself in was an offense which could not get out of its own way. Any positive offensive play was immediately followed by some kind if mishap that effectively destroyed the slightest hint of momentum. There were shotgun snap issues, including one that resulted in a 24 yard loss. Bryn Renner looked like he was still rattled from last week's brutal hit in the second quarter versus Wake Forest. Renner's struggles included a interception by a defensive lineman on a screen pass, one of two Tar Heel turnovers in the first half. The offense was in such shambles, it was not even possible to point to Gio Bernard's absence as a factor.
After the first half, the game felt like it would play itself out to a comfortable Louisville win and the third quarter did not do much to make anyone think this game was heading towards a frenetic ending. The Heels scored a TD midway through the third quarter to cap off a 79-yard drive and cut the Cardinal lead to 36-14. Louisville answered with a field goal early in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 25.
Then all hell broke loose.
UNC engineered a quick scoring drive(1:36) to make it 39-21. UNC then forced the first Louisville punt of the day and promptly blocked it setting up the Tar Heel on the Cardinals' five yard line. Renner hit TE Eric Ebron on a short pass and a Casey Barth extra point pulled the Heels within 11 points. Following a second straight stop by the Tar Heel defense, UNC drove to the 50 yard line where Renner hit RB Romar Morris on a checkdown in the flat. Morris move past several Cardinal defenders and dashed to the endzone. UNC now trailed 39-34 following a failed two point conversion. UNC immediately recovered a fumble on the kickoff and managed to make it down to the four yard line where a 4th and goal pass to Erik Highsmith was broken up by the Cardinals effectively ending the game.
On the day, Bryn Renner was 26-41 for 363 yards and five touchdowns. Romar Morris only had 23 yards rushing but was Renner's most productive target for 149 yard receiving and two touchdowns.
The question which arises from this game is which Tar Heel team is the real one? The furious comeback(which speaks to the resiliency of the team) does or should not mitigate the poor play from the first half. Granted some of the first half debacle was owed to just out and out stupid, unforced errors like snapping the ball over Renner's head. That being said, there was plenty to find fault with, especially the defense which either by scheme or poor execution was not able to slow down the Cardinal offense. There were far too many plays where Louisville receivers were left open with a 5, 10 or even 15 yard cushion. While UNC did a much better job in the second half on both sides of the football, UNC clearly needs to continue that improvement in the weeks to come.
More or less that is the takeaway from this game. This is a team that is very much a work in progress. Both the offense and defense are working with new schemes that has obviously caused its share of headaches on game day. It stands to reason that as the season progresses and the players acclimate to the new schemes, the team as a whole will improve its play on the field. The fact the Tar Heels did not quit in the second half and came within one completed pass of taking the lead is a nice signal that at least the effort is there even if the execution is lacking.