Farewells begin after Heels 45-38 win
Posted November 24, 2012
Updated November 25, 2012
Chapel Hill, N.C. — It wasn't as easy as it appeared it was going to be from the outset, but in the end, North Carolina dispatched of offensively-challenged Maryland, 45-38 to close out year one of the Larry Fedora era with an 8-4 record.
Could the year have gone better? Sure, especially when you consider that the talent-laden Tar Heels lost close games on the road to Wake Forest and Duke. But, when you put everything into the computer, from new offensive and defensive systems, to the fact that this team entered the year knowing they were playing a dozen exhibitions with no chance to win anything, it's hard not to recognize a job well done by all involved in Chapel Hill.
It's a shame however, that next season, when Carolina is eligible again for the Coastal Division, ACC championship and postseason play, Giovani Bernard won't be around to lead the way.
Gio has to go
At least he shouldn't be.
Bernard is the best player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He may not win the league's player of the year award, because Clemson QB Tahj Boyd has had a marvelous season and his team might end up playing in a BCS game, but Gio was the best player in this league. He led the league in rushing despite missing the equivalent of three games with injuries. He averaged nearly five receptions per game, and Bernard's catches are not all dump offs and quick screens, He gets down the field in the passing game. He averaged nearly 17 yards per punt return and his 19 touchdowns (12 rushing, 5 receiving and 2 on returns) topped the league.
But, he can't come back. And, if he wavers at all in the decision-making process, one of his friends should force him to watch the play that might have made Marcus Lattimore a sixth-rather than a first-round draft pick.
Bernard put in the requisite three years in college, he's eligible to leave and while it would certainly be thrilling to see him another year, it's his future – and they're his knees and ankles. There's just too much money at stake for Bernard to risk another season for free.
So, in the glow of yet another 200-plus all purpose yard performance, I want to be the first to say, "So long, Gio. It was an absolute blast watching you play, and I'll miss the best stiff arm in the league." Oh, and one more thing: thanks for the electrifying punt return to beat North Carolina State. Not that I was rooting either way, but it was a moment that will be etched in the rivalry's lore forever.
As for the finale …
Sidney Lowe used to say, "They made their run, then it was time to make our run." And, while he was talking about basketball, if we've learned anything from watching ACC football this year, it's that there isn't much difference – in terms of scoring at least.
Nine plays into the game, North Carolina had two touchdowns on the board and was seemingly on its way to a rout. A pair of three play TD drives sandwiched around a Carolina interception of Maryland LB-turned-QB Sean Petty had the Tar Heels out in front 14-0 just 2:49 into the game. But, Maryland mustered up a momentum-halting drive, and even though it ended in a punt, the Terps kept the ball long enough to stop the temporary bleeding.
It was at this time that many of the Tar Heels defensive problems came to the surface. Poor coverage in the secondary, poor tackling, a defense that appeared at times to be lined up incorrectly and when Maryland's dynamite freshman receiver Stefon Diggs brought back the second half kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, the Terrapins were in front 35-21. How did that happen? Well, a team that was dead last in the ACC in total offense (273 yards/game) racked up more than 300 in the first half. A quarterback, who isn't a quarterback, who hadn't thrown for more than 136 yards in his three previous starts, had nearly 150 yards passing in the first half. In all, Petty completed 16 of 35 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown with the lone interception and actually performed well enough to give the Terps a chance to win.
But, that was it. Now it was time for the Tar Heels to make their run, and just like the first half, it happened quickly. Three plays after Diggs was mobbed by his teammates in the end zone Quinshad Davis was streaking across the goal line with a 50-yard Bryn Renner touchdown pass. Then, after a Maryland punt, it took just three more plays before Renner found Erik Highsmith for a 15-yard scoring strike and we were tied.
Carolina's defense (or Maryland's offense, you choose) held the Terrapins to a combined loss of 7 yards on 14 3rd quarter plays while the Heels' offense was rolling up more than 200 yards in the quarter on 30 plays. The 24 consecutive points in the period ended the game and the Terps could only get a field goal the rest of the way in a 45-38 season-ending game for both teams.
In a 34-second stretch, spanning the 2nd and 3rd quarters, Maryland scored three touchdowns. Stefon Diggs connected with TE Matt Furstenburg on an 8-yard razzle dazzle TD throw with 0:21 left in the half. Then after Romar Morris coughed up the ensuing kickoff, Petty and Kevin Dorsey hooked up from 28 yards out on the next snap giving Maryland an unlikely halftime lead. When Diggs raced away with the second half kickoff, the Terps had 21 points and a two-touchdown lead. But, we all know how it ended up.
Quickly about the Furstenburg scoring play. He might have secured it prior to striding out of bounds, but he was clearly juggling the ball throughout and there didn't appear to be a replay review of the catch.
Freshman Quinshad Davis caught nine passes for 135 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the win. For the season, 52 catches for more than 600 yards certainly bodes well for the future.
I'll say it right now, assuming that Gio Bernard turns pro this spring, Carolina is in very good hands at running back. A.J. Blue is going to be a different runner than Gio, but he can catch the ball out of the backfield and run between the tackles and could give UNC a third consecutive 1,000-yard rusher.
* Casey Barth, who continued the long line of Barth kickers (okay, just two) for another term. Though he spent his final two games in street clothes, Barth was a fantastic weapon and a security blanket during his time in Chapel Hill.
* Kevin Reddick, who led his team in tackling again, despite not having the season I'm sure he'd have liked. Reddick didn't fare as well in the 4-2-5 defense, but he'll play on Sundays and represented his school very well.
* Jonathan Cooper, who is an Outland Trophy finalist and could be the first offensive guard selected in the upcoming draft. And that only begins to describe what he's about.
I had the chance to sit with Cooper a year ago at the ACC media days and he's an engaging, bright young man who will have a great future no matter how his professional career turns out. Reminds me a ton of former NC State lineman Sean Locklear. A gentleman, with a great head on his shoulders who won't take anything for granted. College athletics needs more like Jonathan Cooper.
* North Carolina football until the spring. Another drawback to sending last year's group to Shreveport, La., was that being ineligible for a bowl game this year means that Larry Fedora can't utilize those all-important December practices leading up to a bowl game.