The cure for North Carolina’s beleaguered defense, it turned out, had been here all along in the Virginia Tidewater, nestled in the middle of a peninsula surrounded by two rivers, in a land where, for now, a decent college football offense is something foreign.
The Tar Heels came here to Old Dominion on Saturday seeking their first victory of the season, and seeking to show, for once, that they are capable of playing competent defense – the kind that eluded them during defeats against California and Louisville, ugly affairs, both.
And yet it is striking how different 11 defensive players can look from one week to the next, going from attempting to slow one of the nation’s best players (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson) to facing the hapless Monarchs, whose sustained offensive ineptitude helped make UNC look mighty, at times, during its 53-23 victory.
If the Tar Heels (1-2) had struggled defensively on Saturday at Foreman Field, it could have been a harbinger of doom. It’s not an exaggeration: Had UNC not been able to stop Old Dominion (2-1), one of the worst offensive teams in the country through two weeks, then what team, exactly, could UNC stop?
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No need to ponder the question now. The Tar Heels so controlled things on Saturday that, with 2½ minutes remaining in the first half, and with UNC leading 39-7, the Monarchs were already on their third quarterback, the first two benched because of their ineffectiveness.
At the time, the number of ODU quarterbacks who had played (three) outnumbered its first down total (two). The Monarchs entered halftime with more kickoff return yards (173) than they had total yards of offense (120), though 100 of those return yards came on ODU’s lone first-half touchcdown.
Five of its eight first-half drives ended after three plays – four in punts, one in an interception. The Monarchs’ first two quarterbacks, Jordan Hoy and Blake LaRussa, moved with an appearance of frantic panic – appropriate, perhaps, given that UNC’s defensive front constantly chased them into discomfort.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels had little trouble with Old Dominion’s defense, which, truthful or not, UNC’s coaching staff expressed concern about facing. Chris Kapilovic, the Tar Heels’ offensive coordinator, said earlier this week that ODU’s defensive line would be the best UNC had seen through three games.
It didn’t seem that way, given the ease with which the Tar Heels scored throughout the first half. Five of their first seven drives in the first half ended in the end zone. All five of those touchdowns were rushing touchdowns – two apiece from quarterback Chazz Surratt and running back Jordon Brown.
By halftime, many who’d been part of a sellout crowd at Foreman Field – the fifth-smallest FBS stadium in the country – had left. They didn’t return, and thus missed one of ODU’s few offensive highlights: the 71-yard touchdown pass from Steven Williams to Travis Fulgham.
That play represented the continuation of a disturbing trend for the Tar Heels. For three consecutive weeks now, they’ve allowed what their coaches describe as a “catastrophic play” for a touchdown. It happened again on Saturday, against an offense that labored even against Albany and Massachusetts.
Still, this was, during the competitive portion of the game, the kind of defensive performance UNC needed. The question is how it translates to the more difficult tests ahead. ODU, after all, is a Conference USA team three years removed from its first year of FBS competition. It lacks the resources of major-conference schools.
During their transitional year, in 2014, the Monarchs traveled to UNC’s Kenan Stadium and absorbed an 80-20 beating. UNC coach Larry Fedora cautioned earlier this week that these Monarchs are much different than the ones from four years ago. He expected a challenge on Saturday.
It never arrived. Midway through the second quarter, UNC led 32-7 – meaning that the Tar Heels had outscored ODU 112-27 during the past five and a half quarters between these teams – and a few minutes later the lead grew to 39-7.
After two weeks of anguish, of allowing catastrophic plays and more highlights than any defense would ever feel good about, the Tar Heels at times on Saturday had the look of a team releasing its wrath. They came here in search of something – a victory, some defensive success – and they encountered an ODU offense that couldn’t help but make UNC appear dominant.