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September 30, 2011

Executing fundamentals will tell the tale

The emotion involved in the rivalry between UNC and East Carolina is a legitimate topic, but what is going to win the game will be execution and turnovers.

Well, make that capitalizing on turnovers. Last week UNC forced turnovers but failed to turn them all into points.

"If you get those big plays on defense," Coach Everett Withers said, "and don't capitalize on them on offense, that is still a [missed opportunity]. If you don't turn those into points, it hurts you."

The game will begin at 8 p.m. on Saturday at a sold-out Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, which will be loud and raucous.

Carolina's offense must be efficient, and run the ball far more often than it did last week. Leading into the game against Georgia Tech, UNC coaches and players talked about running the ball and winning time of possession. Keep the Yellow Jackets' offense on the sideline, they said.

So what did Carolina do? The Tar Heels became harried, hurried and disorganized after scoring on their opening drive. After executing perfectly, they discarded the run for much of the rest of the half.

"Each week we want to do a good job of getting each of our guys carries," Withers said. "I don't think we did as good a job this past week. It's hard sometimes when you have a guy back there like Gio [Bernard] who is making plays. But we still want to be able to get A.J. [Blue] and Ryan [Houston] more carries."

Giovani Bernard is a phenomenal talent at running back. His combination of vision, acceleration and his gift for stopping and starting make him unique.

But he is not someone who should carry the ball 25 times a game if the Tar Heels want him to still be playing later in the season.

The power of Houston and Blue helps the offensive line because those are two physical backs who gain some yards by running over people.

The time has also arrived to challenge the offensive line to carry the offense by placing the running game on its broad shoulders. For offensive coordinator John Shoop this does not mean just because UNC gains 1 yard on first down, he has to throw on second. If the Tar Heels get a lead on the Pirates, ideal drives would then be to gain 3, 4 and 5 yards a play as they grind down the field to finish with more TDs.

At that point, the Pirates would be the ones who feel the pressure to hurry and possibly commit mental errors.

"You can't be in third-and-7-plus as we were last week and expect your quarterback and expect your protection to hold up," Withers said. "Get 3, get 4, get yourself in third-and-3," Withers said. "Then people don't blitz you nearly as much."

What makes this difficult is quarterback Bryn Renner is so genuinely gifted. Many fans see his interceptions and forget the pinpoint passes for big gains and touchdowns. The kid is unique, and the Tar Heels are fortunate to have him.

Nonetheless, the best thing Shoop can do for Renner during this period of on-the-job training is run the ball more. Do not abandon the run, particularly in the first half. If the huge Carolina line does its job and pounds on the Pirates throughout the first half, then Renner should get some golden opportunities to go over the top off play-action later.

Of course, none of this will be any easier playing on the road in Greenville. The stadium will be packed, loud and rocking. Renner and his offensive coordinator will have to stay calm and maintain their composure.

Defensively, the time has arrived for the line to rise to the level of expectations that preceded it into the season. Quinton Coples has done more talking than tackling so far. Right now he does not look like a top-50 player in the National Football League, much less a one or two pick.

Tackling is always a key, but especially in a game in which the opposition puts in the ball in open space with a short-to-medium range passing game. No one is going to stop the Pirates from completing some passes, but good, solid fundamentals in tackling will keep those receivers from gaining additional yards and perhaps force ECU to punt.

Fundamentals. UNC needs to return to those on Saturday.


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