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November 16, 2011
The North Carolina football team might as well be Missouri after its last performance because this has to be a "show me" situation for many of the fans.
If there could be a more disappointing showing than what UNC turned in at N.C. State, it's hard to imagine. Anyone who follows this program still has to be wondering how the Tar Heels could have gone to Raleigh one week after seemingly coming together in a huge victory against Wake Forest and falling flat on their faces offensively against the Wolfpack.
The defense may not have been perfect, but there is no doubt UNC's defense played well enough for the Tar Heels to win.
So now this team's pride is truly on the line as UNC will play at 8 p.m. in the weekly ESPN Thursday-night game against Virginia Tech at Blacksburg, Va.
"I feel like we're right on track, ready to get started, excited to play on Thursday night," interim head coach Everett Withers said. "It's always a fun thing for college kids to play on Thursday night in front of all of their peers. So we're looking forward to it."
Frankly, at this point the Tar Heels are going to have to show Withers means what he says. More important, the players have need to show they still care enough to play out the string.
The coaching staff is going to have to show it will actually execute its promises on offense. Time and again, Withers has talked about running the football and keeping the opposition off the field, but time and again Carolina has forsaken the run and kept its defense on the field too long.
What is a real shame is with the right attitude, a big, strong offensive line and three capable running backs, this team could have gained far more yards on the ground than it has. It could have helped its defense, and did first-year starting quarterback Bryn Renner a huge favor.
If the Tar Heels do not run the ball on Thursday, the defense will get hung out to dry again and Renner will become an accessible target for an aggressive Virginia Tech defense.
"When you're dominating the time of possession like they're doing, running the football," Withers said, "with [running back David] Wilson, here's a guy with eight 100-yard rushing games.
"We have to do a great job of trying to run the ball and keep their offense off the field," Withers said.
Withers, and even more important, offensive coordinator John Shoop, must show they mean it when they talk about controlling the ball. So far this season that promise has been broken on an almost weekly basis.
Let's just look at the facts:
Virginia Tech leads the league in time of possession at 34.19 minutes per game.
UNC is 11th at 29.05.
Virginia Tech is first in the league in third-down defense, holding teams to a conversion rate of 31.5 percent. The Hokies are tops in denying first downs. Teams gain an average of 15.2 per game against Virginia Tech.
Conversely, the Tar Heels are 10th in the league at converting third downs (38 percent) with their erratic hit-or-miss game plans. Exhibit A: the fiasco at N.C. State. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to what Shoop had in mind.
One thing he did do was run sideways when the offensive line and Giovani Bernard have proven all year that they are at their best on quick hitting plays off guard and tackle.
Withers chose to blame the offensive line for the poor showing.
"We didn't block as well as we needed to up front," Withers said. "We never could get any rhythm."
Those linemen may not have played their best game, but they were not put in the best position to succeed with the east-west plays against a defense with speed. Virginia Tech has even more speed, and the only way to run against speed is right at it.
Wilson is getting a lot of deserved attention for his 136 yards per game (6.5 per carry). He is first in the ACC. But Bernard is the third-leading rusher in the ACC at 101.2 yards per game, and he's doing it in an offense that fails to utilize him consistently.
One more statistic that could make the difference, actually this is the one that will make the difference if it follows the pattern so far is turnovers. The Hokies are third in the ACC in turnover margin with plus-5.
Carolina is 10th at minus-4.
Follow this aforementioned recipe, and the season will be hanging by a thread as the Tar Heels prepare for the annual season-ending game against Duke.
That is definitely the last thing Carolina's fans want to see the Tar Heels show the country on the weekly Thursday-night ESPN game.