In a way, the fact that the North Carolina Tar Heels hung tough against the LSU Tigers and had two plays inside the 10-yard line to win the game Saturday evening in Atlanta shouldn’t be completely surprising.
Sure, the Tar Heels faced huge odds to even compete with LSU after the program announced 13 players would not suit up for the game due to recent investigations into possible academic fraud and misconduct with an agent.
More than half of the once-heralded starting defense didn’t put on the pads.
Quarterback T.J. Yates’s No. 1 receiver and top two running backs didn’t take the field with him.
It was nothing short of a mess.
But as the line continued to creep to LSU minus-10 points, it became more and more apparent that only a sucker would place that bet.
To assume LSU would come out and completely dismantle Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game would be assuming a lot.
Think about it.
Us-Against-the-World on a Big-Time Stage
The nationally televised game was the crown jewel on the first Saturday evening of college football season.
ESPN’s College GameDay crew set up shop in Atlanta to air it’s three-hour pregame show Saturday morning from the site of Carolina-LSU.
Everybody would be watching, and both teams knew this.
Carolina had plenty of ammo to build up an us-against-the-world attitude prior to kickoff.
Head coach Butch Davis had plenty of material to form one of the better believe-in-each-other-and-go-get-‘em-boys speeches before the Tar Heels took the field.
And with seemingly nobody thinking Carolina could make it a game, the Tar Heels had plenty of reason to prove the nation wrong.
Combine that with the prime time stage, and who wouldn’t show up for that game?
Yes, facing LSU without many of your best players would be an extreme test of depth, preparation, character, and pride. And it’s a test that, despite falling short 30-24, Carolina passed gracefully.
But the test ain’t over. Now that the LSU game has come and gone on the fall docket, the test is really just beginning for UNC.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a group of kids,” Davis said after the game. “The way they fought themselves back into the ballgame. But one thing that defines your character and your guts is your ability to compete.”
Davis should be proud of his team. They put up a valiant effort, made some big plays at big times, and made something of a game that smelled like a blowout after LSU took a 30-10 lead into halftime.
Davis said North Carolina would not take any moral victories from this game, that they came to Atlanta to beat LSU, and it just didn’t quite happen.
Missing 13 players doesn’t make this loss any easier for UNC.
A loss is a loss, and now comes the big question: Will the Tar Heels have a letdown after a draining couple of weeks and an emotional opening game?
Fortunately for Carolina, it has a chance to catch its breath.
UNC has a bye next week, but then the schedule remains and it doesn’t get any easier.
Reigning ACC Champion Georgia Tech comes into Chapel Hill for the Tar Heels’ home opener on Sept. 18. Carolina will travel to Rutgers the following week before coming home to face East Carolina and Clemson, respectively, after that.
Carolina shouldn’t take the LSU game as an opportunity to feel good about its performance.
Carolina should take the LSU game as an opportunity to save its season.
Many Positives, but What Do They Mean?
Yates had one of his best performances as a Tar Heel throwing for 412 yards and three TDs. He orchestrated two big touchdown drives in the fourth quarter and had Carolina on the verge of a third, game-winning TD as the clock ran out.
Yates showed poise and leadership by hanging in the pocket and continuing to deliver the football.
Here’s a guy who threw the ball 46 times Saturday night because Carolina didn’t really have another option, and Yates couldn’t even equivocally say that he would be the starter against LSU two weeks ago.
After an inconsistent 2009, Davis watched as Yates and redshirt freshman Bryn Renner had an open competition for the quarterback job.
Yates edged out the rookie and delivered a big-time performance for a North Carolina team that, without its top two running backs, needed its quarterback to do the heavy lifting.
Yates’s job isn’t safe—he must continue to perform well or Renner will be in there—but his performance against LSU was a heck of a statement and the first real sign in a long time from Yates that suggested he would take ownership of the role.
Yates leaned on his younger receivers—sophomores Jheraine Boyd and Erik Highsmith—and they both responded.
Boyd had a career-high 221 yards receiving on six catches with one touchdown, including a 97-yarder, and Highsmith caught a pivotal TD during Carolina’s fourth-quarter surge.
Carolina played sloppily in the first half and saw its special teams unit dismantled by LSU’s Patrick Peterson, but after surrendering 30 points in the first 30 minutes, the defense shut out LSU in the second half despite playing without its entire secondary.
Many positives came out of Saturday night for Carolina, but only if it builds upon those positives.
None of this will mean anything if North Carolina comes out flat against Georgia Tech, then goes on the road and gets thumped by Big East bully Rutgers to begin the season 0-3.
The good news for North Carolina is that it knows it can compete even without its full squad as long as it can generate the sense of urgency it showed against LSU.
Carolina can still make something of its season and contend for an ACC title.
But just how many us-against-the-world weekends will it take?
Well, certainly more than one.
Follow Teddy Mitrosilis on Twitter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.