Had North Carolina labored to beat Old Dominion on Saturday, and had the Tar Heels’ defense struggled, especially, to contain one of the worst offenses in the country, postgame clarity would have been much simpler: UNC, it could have been said then, is in clear trouble.
That is not what happened on Saturday, though. What happened, instead, is that UNC built a 32-point second-quarter lead on its way to a 53-23 victory that didn’t necessarily do justice to the margin between these teams. The Tar Heels played angrily, at times, and they usually played well.
And yet they left, in some respects, wondering what this all means in the grand scheme of a season whose long-term direction could well be defined in the next two weeks, with divisional conference games upcoming against Duke, at home, and at Georgia Tech.
A defeat here on Saturday, or even an ugly victory, could have been calamitous for the Tar Heels, who are still finding their way amid all they lost from last season. The lopsided victory that it was, though, ultimately says little.
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If anything, it’s representative of the gap in resources between these programs. UNC is a major-conference school with the luxury of a big-money television contract and a coaching staff whose combined salary would go a long way at a place like ODU.
The Monarchs, meanwhile, are in their third year of playing at the FBS level. They play in a 21,000-seat stadium, among the nation’s smallest, and though they won 10 games last season the talent disparity between these teams couldn’t have been clearer on Saturday.
UNC (1-2), then, did what it should under these kinds of circumstances: It ended the drama quickly, put the Monarchs (2-1) away early and then hoped afterward that this really did represent some kind of a turning point, especially for its defense, which entered Saturday needing something, anything, good to happen.
“That’s the defense we know we are,” M.J. Stewart, the senior cornerback, said after UNC held ODU to 316 yards, an impressive number relative to what the Tar Heels allowed the first two weeks in defeats against California and Louisville. “We didn’t show it the first two weeks.
“But that’s the defense that we know we are.”
Stewart said, more than once, that this was a game in which he and his teammates attempted to eradicate the “bad taste” they’d carried since the debacle against Louisville, which became the third team in UNC coach Larry Fedora’s six-year tenure to gain 700 yards against the Tar Heels.
Indeed, Stewart said, “we were embarrassed defensively” against Louisville. And so ODU, which struggled to score against Albany and Massachusetts in the first two weeks, became an outlet for pent-up frustration, a conduit through which the Tar Heels released some of the pain they’d been carrying around.
“We know we have higher standards for ourselves,” Stewart said. “And today was just the first step in showing ourselves, first, that we are a better defense, and then show the world.”
Still, the Monarchs’ sustained offensive ineptitude, especially throughout the first half, raised the obvious question of whether they’re simply that bad of an offensive team, or if UNC really had solved some of the defensive woes that plagued the Tar Heels through the first two weeks. With 2½ minutes remaining in the first half, UNC held a 39-7 lead and ODU brought in its third quarterback of the game.
At the time, the Monarchs had used more quarterbacks (three) than they had first downs. And when they finally mustered a productive drive, they fumbled at the goal line before they could score – another UNC defensive victory with an assist from ODU’s comedy of errors.
“I think time will tell,” Fedora said when asked how he could evaluate this defensive performance relative to the competition. “I think we improved. Have we arrived? I’m not going to say that. But I think we improved.
“And any time you have success like that, guys gain confidence, and you play better.”
That was one characteristic the Tar Heels, who generated 254 yards rushing behind a patchwork offensive line, lacked in each of the first two weeks. Somewhere along the way in those defeats against Cal and Louisville, they lost confidence.
They lost energy, too, especially in the fourth quarter of those losses. UNC played with a spark on Saturday. Early on, especially, it pursued the hapless Monarchs with the sort of ferocity that made ODU appear skittish in comparison.
The Monarchs gained 11 yards on their first three drives and all of them ended, after three plays, with a punt. One of those punts traveled but 24 yards. All of ODU’s early possessions included cringe-worthy moments, ones that at times couldn’t help but elicit pity.
“We just came out with a mindset that we wanted to dominate up front,” said Tyler Powell, a senior defensive lineman who played in his first game of the season after serving a two-game suspension. Powell played in both the inside and outside of the defensive line.
Fedora appreciated his versatility, especially, given the Tar Heels’ mounting injury woes. UNC lost one offensive lineman, William Sweet, to injury on Saturday. A defensive lineman, Jalen Dalton, walked out of the locker room after the game wearing a protective boot on his right foot.
“The way this thing’s going right now, we’re going to need every single guy and probably some of you,” Fedora told reporters, speaking to his team’s injury problems.
Unlike the previous two weeks, the Tar Heels left with their egos intact, if not their bodies. They avoided humiliation. They more effectively communicated, which is something Fedora and his players said they didn’t do last weekend.
And yet they still gave up a 71-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter – the third consecutive week the Tar Heels have allowed such a long scoring play. Fedora considered whether he was more pleased with the defense, overall, or more upset with that one particular breakdown.
“Nah, I mean, hey – yeah, I don’t like it to happen,” he said of the touchdown, “but I was very pleased with the way those guys approached the game and the way they played throughout the game.”
This was, in some ways, like the preseason tune-up UNC didn’t have an opportunity to play. And yet it came in week three, after two humbling defeats, and it came amid a sense of desperation. UNC achieved its mission, but Saturday was only going to be memorable if it hadn’t.