Well, wasn't that special?
I tried to share THF's optimism in the game preview that UNC would want to finish this trying season on a strong note for interim coach Everett Withers and perform well in a de facto tryout for new coach Larry Fedora. Instead, Tar Heel Nation's worst fears were realized when, after the first drive, Carolina put forth an uninspired effort and pretty much mailed it in during a 41-24 loss to the Tigers.
If you had been stranded on a desert island since August 1 and had missed UNC's 12 regular season games, the Independence Bowl was an encapsulation of much of what UNC did, both good and bad this season. There was the opening drive, where the Heels mixed up the run and pass and Dwight Jones looked like an all-American; there were some solid hits by the linebackers; and Bryn Renner showed flashes of being a fabulous quarterback. Then again, there was the horrific offensive line play; head-scratching offensive play calling; poor tackling; inexplicable drops by the receivers; and a defensive secondary that constantly blew coverages and couldn't guard Garner High School's receivers. About the only things from the regular season that we did not see in the bowl game, thankfully, were the special teams foibles and the mind-boggling stupid penalties. But when those are the highlights, there's not much else to say.
With that said, here is the bowl game edition of the GBU Report:
Bryn Renner: At least someone looked like they wanted to impress the new boss. Renner threw for 317 yards and three touchdowns and was basically all the Heels could count on for the offense. Renner set the UNC single-season record for touchdown passes as well. Then again, Renner's game was not without its warts, as he grossly underthrew at least two balls that could have been big gains and possibly touchdowns.
Erik Highsmith: Highsmith had 8 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown and became Renner's go-to receiver when Jones vanished after the first quarter. It was nice to see Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd get involved in the offense since that will be the QB-receiver combination of the future.
Thomas Hibbard: I guess it doesn't say much for your team's effort when the punter makes the "good" list, but the oft-maligned freshman had a career punting day, averaging nearly 50 yards per kick and placing three inside the 20. If this is a glimpse of what the future holds for Hibbard, then hopefully punting can become a strength of this team going forward instead of the liability it has been most of the season.
Dwight Jones: If you didn't actually watch the game, you might look at Jones' stat line of 6 catches for 77 yards and a SportsCenter-worthy TD grab and think it was just another day at the office. But Jones apparently needed to check out of Shreveport early to get back to his New Year's Eve party because he only had two catches after the first quarter, dropped a number of catchable balls, and was a non-factor the rest of the way. Sadly, it won't be his TD catch that makes the highlight film - it will be the bobbled-off-his-back blooper-reel worthy turnover (that is amazingly charged to Renner as an interception) that is the lasting image of his UNC career.
Gio Bernard: Missouri made mincemeat of the nation's leading freshman runner, as Bernard only had 31 yards on 13 rushing attempts. Since 17 of those came on one play, the rest of the day he had 14 yards on 12 carries. I have harped all season on the fact that Bernard's rushing totals have come in spite of his offensive line, not because of it. Since UNC is incapable of opening holes between the tackles, the Tigers covered the edges well and did not let Gio work his magic to squirt through for yardage on second effort.
Offensive Line: The usual suspects make a final appearance in the GBU for this season. I could just copy and paste the "ugly" reports from this season I suppose, but for most of 13 games it has been the same - inability to open holes between the tackles, being a step slow and missing blocks on the pulls, getting blown up by smaller defensive linemen, on and on and on.
Defensive Backs: Again a fixture in the "ugly" section, the performance of this group on Monday night bordered on the comical. Fans are used to seeing the backs being torched, but the blown coverages and apathy shown against Missouri were probably the worst of the season.
Everett Withers: For all of the praise rightfully given to Withers and his staff for keeping the season in the road in 2011, he failed his final test as UNC's head coach miserably. The Heels looked disinterested and were woefully unprepared for the Tigers. Under Withers, Carolina at least had a reputation for continuing to compete even when the team got down, but that never really came to fruition against Missouri. Ultimately the team wasn't ready to win the games they needed to win, namely NCSU and the bowl game. I think it is funny how so many message board fans wanted Withers to remain as defensive coordinator under Fedora. Still think so now?
The end of the season brings an end to the Butch Davis/Everett Withers era of UNC football. Unfortunately, this era will be known more for what might have been than for what actually was, given the NCAA unpleasantness and the abrupt coaching change before this season. Rob Stone and Danny Kannell of ESPN kept referencing the NFL talent on UNC's roster and that is Davis' legacy at Carolina: lots of talent and not much to show for it. On the other hand, the program is in the best shape at a coaching transition since Bill Dooley gave way to Dick Crum over 30 years ago. The Hat is now on the clock.