October 24, 2008

Hanging in there

Someone on the CarolinaBlue.com football message board suggested this team might tank if it loses to Boston College in Saturday's noon game at Kenan Stadium.

This is not meant to pick on that person. I'm actually glad he made those comments because if one person is thinking it, then the probability is that others are as well.

But I'm here to go on the record to say that there is no way that is going to happen. This team may lose on any given Saturday. It's sports, but it will not be because these kids quit on this coaching staff or the coaching staff on these kids.

The seniors and the coaches will lead. The younger guys are too excited what is happening not to follow. And in the last year, everyone involved with Carolina football has given too many hours, poured too much blood and sweat into this effort to simply quit, or even grow lazy.

Does that mean there could not be a flat spot in a game, such as Saturday's against Boston College? Of course, not. These are human beings, and young ones at that.

They have played at an emotional peak for almost all of every game this season. The first quarter against Miami was an exception, but anything that has happened outside of that has had more to do with a young team still learning on the job rather than a failure to care or desire.

Even in the first quarter of the Miami game, one could argue the team was still trying to overcome the loss of its starting quarterback and subsequent collapse the week before against Virginia Tech. The kids cared, but they had to find a way to get going again.

As all Carolina fans should recall, the Tar Heels fought back against the Hurricanes and battled to the final play of the game to win it.

This team is 5-2. Yes, a loss to Boston College would make it 1-3 in the conference heading into a much-needed open date. But that 1-3 record will not kill the desire and work ethic of this team.

The open date will instead give the Tar Heels time to heal, regardless of what happens against Boston College, and be even more prepared for the stretch run.

If any Carolina fan says he or she would not have been happy with a 5-2 record and wins against Rutgers, Miami, Connecticut and Notre Dame heading into this week would either be unrealistic or lying. All the talk about an undefeated season is so incredibly premature with a team still this young and developing.

Now let's talk some reality. Carolina has replaced its starting quarterback with a veteran who has done an outstanding job. He is 3-1 and the single loss on his record was not his fault. Recite after me. Cameron Sexton is not the reason UNC lost to Virginia.

He led the Tar Heels on a drive that ended with a field goal to give Carolina a 7-point lead with two minutes and 22 seconds left. That should have been enough to get the job done.

This isn't saying he played his finest game or he was spectacular, but watch Auburn or Tennessee play and tell me if you think they would trade someone for Sexton right this minute. You had better believe it.

Those two great Southeastern Conference football powers do not have a quarterback between them. UNC has a proven starter with a fractured foot, a veteran who is playing like the highly recruited player he was and two more on the bench with promise, just too much youth to produce at the moment.

Now let's move on to the even greater loss. The most exciting, explosive and productive player in America was lost for the season against Notre Dame when a golden helmet hit Brandon Tate's knee.

Did Carolina struggle in replacing Tate last week? Yes. Should the Tar Heels have relied even more on Ryan Houston and Shaun Draughn? Yes.

But an offensive coordinator and his staff have a delicate balance of trying to rework the offense without a player of Tate's stature, while trying to do what it takes to win. And, by the way, Virginia beat Maryland 31-0 two weeks before Carolina lost there, and beat East Carolina one week before.

This Virginia team is developing. That is no excuse for blowing that lead, but this was not some hapless bunch of players and coaches.

Now let's return to the moment. This team will come to Saturday's game and play its heart out. It may start flat as it tries to shed the final remnants of the pain from Virginia, similar to what happened against Miami, but it will not quit.

The Tar Heels are not going to quit. They have not quit in any game yet, and they are not going to start.

Does this mean UNC will win? No. Boston College is an outstanding team. The Eagles turned the ball over five times against Virginia Tech last week and won. Who among you would have bet a penny that any team could turn the ball over five times against Virginia Tech and win the game?

Here is the deal: Carolina fans pissed and moaned for years about wanting a real football coach and a big-time program. Well, you have it. One doesn't cure 10 years of mistakes overnight, but this staff has done a heck of a job with a jump-start.

From where I'm sitting, the only people who will quit on this football season are fair-weather Carolina fans who feel entitled to never suffering disappointing losses. This is sport. The winners get back up and fight, and the Tar Heel football team and coaching staff will do just that.

Will the fans? There is the real question. Will they continue to fill the seats and support the program that is being constructed, the program so many people said they dearly wanted? There is the real question because I'll bet what little I have that these kids and coaches will not quit, no matter what.

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