In the midst of a tight game, and after a turnover gave Liberty a 22-21 lead, UNC turned to a signature of a Larry Fedora team - defense - to swing momentum and propel the Tar Heels to a comfortable season-opening win.
With the Carolina offense bumbling and stumbling through the first 2 1/2 quarters and nursing a 21-15 lead, Quinshad Davis was stripped of the ball fighting for yards and Liberty picked up the ball and ran for a touchdown while UNC's offense stood and watched. After another 3-and-out by the UNC offense that included a surrendered sack, the defense really started to exert its will. Tommy Hibbard pinned the Flames deep and after a 3-and-out, Ryan Switzer set Carolina up in Liberty territory, where Marquise Williams hit Mack Hollins for a 33-yard touchdown and the Heels regained the lead. On Liberty's next offensive play, Carolina linebacker Jeff Schoettmer picked off Josh Woodrum and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown. Then on the first play of the Flames' next drive, Junior Gnonkonde forced a fumble and again gave UNC a short field. Six plays later, Williams scrambled for another Carolina score. Then it only took Liberty two plays to cough the ball up again, and this time Mitch Trubisky found Jack Tabb for another score and just like that a 22-21 deficit turned into a 49-22 cushion.
So, to summarize, UNC scored four times in less than four minutes of game time, with the defense forcing three turnovers in four offensive plays. Ball game, and disaster averted.
With that in mind, here is the game-changing edition of the Good, Bad, and Ugly Report:
Team Defense: Clearly the story of the game, UNC's defense was the difference-maker. Given the less-than-sharp offensive execution, especially in the first 2 1/2 quarters, the Heels needed every bit of defensive help they could get. Carolina's defense forced six turnovers that led to 28 points.
Ryan Switzer: If the Liberty game is any indication, UNC is going to find a way to have the explosive Switzer touch the ball. Switzer led the team with eight receptions, plus had a rushing attempt, and oh by the way, did you know he is a pretty good kick returner? He broke off a 30-yard return despite Liberty trying to kick to the sidelines most every time.
Tommy Hibbard: UNC's punter continues to be a solid weapon, with 3 of his 6 punts downed inside the 20.
Quarterback competition: The word coming out of camp was that neither Williams nor Trubisky had established enough separation from the other to set a permanent starter, but the assumption was that they were both sharp in the preseason. Sharp is not how they would be described on Saturday. Williams was 19-29 for 169 yards with two touchdowns and two bad interceptions on underthrown balls. Trubisky was 10-16 for 66 yards with a touchdown and an interception on a badly-thrown ball on a screen pass. Neither QB distinguished themselves in the passing game but the UNC offense was more diverse with Williams because of his running ability. The vertical passing game was almost non-existent as well.
Running back by committee: UNC's running back corps is probably the most talented group on the team but there was little rhythm in the running game, especially with the constant rotation. The four-man committee of T.J. Logan, Elijah Hood, Khris Francis, and Romar Morris fairly evenly split 27 carries for 125 yards. Hood was certainly the most entertaining, but the use of the RBs seemed erratic and they only chipped in one of UNC's eight touchdowns.
Place-kicking: Senior Thomas Moore missed his one opportunity, from 44 yards. Moore has only made one kick from more than 40 yards, and that was three years ago. Kickoff specialist Nick Weiler put the opening kickoff through the uprights (in other words, from 75 yards away) and may put some pressure on Moore.
Penalties: Yes, it was just the first game, but UNC was flagged 10 times for 60 yards and had three more declined. The young and inexperienced offensive and defensive lines were the main culprits, combing for five false starts, an ineligible man downfield, three offsides (though two were declined), and a personal foul.
Mental mistakes: Again, it was the first game but Carolina was less than sharp in so many phases of the game. A botched long snap cost the Heels a safety, and UNC took a key penalty for 12 men on the field coming out of a time out.
In general, you want to avoid reading too much into a season-opening game. Clearly UNC was not as sharp as you would hope to see coming out of camp, but college football (as opposed to high school and the NFL) doesn't allow for live scrimmages to work the kinks out. At the end of the day, UNC put 56 points on the board and won comfortably, even if the game itself was not comfortable for all 60 minutes. The coaching staff will have plenty to work on this week and if the team looks sharper against San Diego State next week, the foibles of this game will be forgotten.