Going postal in the coastal
Posted November 13, 2013
Coaches and players rarely look at the past. In their minds, history never gained a yard on fourth and short, nor broke up a pass on a fade route in the end zone. We in the media see things a bit differently. History can and does repeat itself. And for some of us, reflecting on games in days gone by – and the challenges we as journalists faced in covering those games – is often as much fun as what’s about to take place. Although to be sure, this year’s Coastal Division race could be the best ever, with six teams in position either to win the title or play a big part in deciding who else does. So here’s my take on two brief but emerging series: UNC-Pitt and Miami-Duke.
UNC at Pittsburgh 12:30 Heinz Field
Series History: It’s a short history but actually pretty significant. North Carolina won the first meeting in 1974 against a Pitt team with Tony Dorsett, 45-29 – Chris Kupec and the Tar Heel offense never punted that day. The teams met again in 1978. The Tar Heels struggled to a 5-6 record in Dick Crum’s first season, but lost only 20-16 against a Pitt team featuring Hugh Green and Mark May. The Panthers were nationally ranked and rarely lost at home in old Pitt Stadium, which by the way was a dead ringer for Wallace Wade Stadium. Carolina turned the tables the following season. Lawrence Taylor against Hugh Green, you’d expect something like a 17-7 score. Dan Marino, then a freshman, did not become the starter at QB for Pitt until mid-season. Would starting Marino have made a difference for the Panthers? We’ll never know, but both Archie Griffin and Joe Montana fared pretty well in their collegiate debuts, both against North Carolina, earlier in the decade. This ultimately was a bitter loss for Pitt – the only one they suffered all season. 1982: Dan Marino vs. Kelvin Bryant at Three Rivers Stadium. This was a nationally televised game matching two of the top five teams in the country on a Thursday night. The Tar Heel defense was stout, but Pitt got the better of a 7-6 football war. That game in 1982 marked Pitt’s last regular season win in this series. North Carolina won two forgettable games against the Panthers in the Carl Torbush era. Pitt of course won the last meeting between the teams in Charlotte’s Meineke Bowl (as it was known then) 19-17. A late field goal spelled the difference.
WRAL History: The 1982 game presented a huge challenge. Photographer Jay Jennings and I were sent to Pittsburgh to do pre-game and post game coverage. This was in the early days of satellite, and we didn’t even think about trying to go live. We were just trying to our stuff on the air! We had produced two lengthy stories for the hour long 6pm news (local news did run from 6-7pm on WRAL in the 80’s) on the day of the game. But around mid-afternoon, we learned that satellite interference had reduced a hard day’s work to five minutes of television mess. The stories were technically not airable, and producers were scrambling to find five new minutes of material for the first block of the newscast and the sportscast. Back in that day, broadcasters frequently flew tapes from place to place via commercial airlines. A quick phone call revealed that we had almost (maybe) enough time to rush to the airport, where for a small fee, an airline would fly the tape with our stories back to Raleigh as a small parcel package that flew alongside the heavier luggage. I called the agent in charge at the gate to let him know to expect me. Jay drove “effectively” to the airport and I literally ran about seven minutes from the airport lobby to the gate for the flight to RDU, which of course was at the far corner of the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. I pulled up at the gate, rather winded – the agent looked at his watch and smiled. “We’ve got two minutes to spare,” he said. There would be more drama. The plane could not be late. It arrived at RDU around 5:40. The baggage handlers had to get our tape off early – it could not be the last thing taken off the plane. WRAL sent a microwave van to the airport. The van technician had to establish a strong signal, retrieve our tape from baggage claim, and transmit our stories back to the station. There would only be time to feed these once. Happily, there was no interference with the microwave shot and our stories aired on schedule. Folks at home never knew. Until now.
Saturday: The high in Pittsburgh will be in the 30’s during the week, but by Saturday we should see temperatures in the 50’s at Heinz Field, with light winds. This is a big break for Carolina, which has no experience playing in wind and cold. Pitt promises to be Carolina’s toughest foe in a month, for sure. The Panthers’ Aaron Donald is a one man wrecking crew on the defensive front. Pitt also has a good secondary, as Notre Dame found out. Still, I like North Carolina’s ability to move the ball with versatile Marquise Williams running and passing to an outstanding group of receivers. Going the other way, North Carolina now has the fifth best defense in CONFERENCE GAMES (not counting the ECU, USC, and MTSU games). While this seems a little hard to believe, the Heels have improved defensively, and now get a chance to show exactly how much. Pitt lost its running game during the first five ACC tilts, but seemed to get a boost from big freshman James Connor against Notre Dame. Pitt also has outstanding receivers – Devin Street and Tyler Boyd are two of the ACC’s best. Tom Savage is a very accurate passer and does not throw interceptions. However, Savage is the most sacked quarterback in the ACC, averaging an incredible five per game. Pitt certainly gets an edge playing at home, but North Carolina has the better kicking game. Carolina leads the ACC in net punting , allowing virtually no return yards. And while Pitt’s Matt Yoklic averages 45 yards per punt, tops in the ACC, the Panthers do allow return yards, more than seven per punt in ACC games. UNC’s elusive punt returner Ryan Switzer should like those numbers.
Miami vs. Duke 3:30 Wade Stadium
Series History: Duke defeated Miami in 1976, back during the days of Mike McGee. The Blue Devils are winless in nine tries against the Canes in ACC play, but there have been a couple of near misses. Miami nearly blew all of a 20-2 lead back during the Ted Roof days at Duke in 2006. Thad Lewis and the Blue Devils cut that lead to 20-15, and actually drove the ball to the Miami six yard line with time for one more play. However, Lewis’ pass was intercepted by Willie Cooper, who ran the ball back about 85 yards and then pulled a hamstring as the game ended. The Canes held on. The 2012 game was just as exciting, with even more big moments. Miami stormed out to a 45-24 lead on the playmaking of Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson. Sean Renfree brought the Devils back, connecting with Jamison Crowder on a 99 yard pass that’s now the longest in school history, then finding Conner Vernon on a fourth down attempt to make it 45-38. Morris connected on yet one more big play, hitting Herb Waters all alone on an out pattern that covered 65 yards. This put the Canes back up by two touchdowns. Duke scored one more late touchdown and attempted an onside kick hoping to get a tie and force overtime. But the Canes came up with the ball and a 52-45 win.
WRAL History: Last year’s game was a beast to cover on deadline. Photographer Brad Simmons and I did our best, but when a game produces 97 points and runs almost four hours, the deadline to get a story on the evening news can come very quickly, even with a 12:30 kickoff. I remember anticipating deadline trouble at about the three hour mark. Miami led 45-24, so I went ahead and wrote a first draft to my story. During that time Renfree found Crowder on the 99 yard bolt of lightning, and yeah that really needed to go into the story. Back to the drawing board. Then came the Renfree to Vernon pass, which was followed quickly by the Morris to Herb Waters strike by Miami. OK, now it’s 52-38, and I’m thinking surely this time I can write an ending, and that later we can massage the copy to weave in post-game reaction. Wrong again. Duke cut the lead to seven and gave itself a chance to force overtime with the onside kick. These events produced rewrite number three, or was it rewrite #4? Brad and I worked as quickly as we could to get our post-game interviews, record my audio track, and edit. We stressed, but we made our deadline, feeding the story at 7:17 to air at 7:22.
Saturday: I don’t think we’ll see as much scoring, but the game could again be memorable. Miami’s lopsided loss to Florida State snowballed in the rain against Virginia Tech. The Canes coughed up the football in their own territory three straight times, and for once, Logan Thomas and the VT offense played flawlessly. Miami will not be so careless this week in Durham. The Canes, even with their injuries, still have speed at the skill positions. Duke counters with playmakers on defense-Kelby Brown, Jeremy Cash, and DeVon Edwards are among the league’s best at stopping drives and forcing turnovers. Edwards, as we saw last week, can convert those turnovers into points. The big question is whether Duke’s offense can score points in the number required to beat an explosive team like Miami. The Devils looked good offensively on their first drive against NC State, but then went practically dormant until the fourth quarter. Duke may need both Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette to make plays at quarterback, and a strong showing from that four man running back rotation, to move the chains and keep the ball from Stephen Morris and his Miami mates. The Canes are solid but not great on defense, so a strong day from the Duke offense, like we saw in the Navy game, is a must if Duke is to continue chasing its dream of a Coastal Division Championship.