Optipessimism Week 3: UNC vs. UVA

First things first: the Blue Zone was comically underfilled again this week, and it was a balmy, cloudy day. With the “hot in the sun” argument lost, I’m convinced more than ever now that

The Blue Zone... it's full!!! Oh wait, this is just a computer rendering.

Blue Zoners, if they’re showing up at all, are simply choosing to watch the game from the comforts of the indoor lounge. As I said last week, Carolina should just double-sell the Blue Zone seats at general admission cost, let of-age students turn the Blue Zone into the Drunk Tar Pit and make an experience of it. Actually, even better: move the traditional fraternity rows to the Blue Zone itself, since no one sits in the existing seats anymore anyway, tell them they’re special and they’re free to drink themselves stupid if they’re 21 or possess a particularly credible fake ID, and triple sell the seats. They still won’t get full. This makes too much sense to ever happen, but still.

I will admit, I struggled to sit down and write this week’s edition of The Optipessimist, for the simple reason that this was a depressingly poor, badly played football game. I know it sounds petty and fair-weathery of me to be complaining about a 28-17 win, Carolina’s first ACC opener win since 2000, but the game simply went rather than being played. In short, Carolina didn’t win the game so much as they didn’t lose it; they didn’t turn the ball over and generally let the Cavaliers’ own ineptitude lose the game. There, you can stop reading now. But if you’re game, read on:

Optimism: Let’s start with the Renner Watch. Renner was 15 of 21 for 143 yards and two touchdowns; fairly pedantic numbers considering the previous two games, but I continue to maintain my emotional attachment to the kid. I’ll reconfirm my statement from last week: Renner has “it.” Part of the “it” is his leadership, like pumping up the team on the sidelines, but part of the “it” is a killer instinct that the quarterback position at Carolina has lacked for the better part of a decade. Renner continued to zing the defense when pressured by shifting in the pocket and rolling out, and narrowly missed connecting on a couple of long balls that would have put his yardage over 200. Even more encouraging, he smartly audibled out of a number of run plays against a stacked defense to quick slants. Unlike last week, he only made a couple of suspect throws.

Pessimism:  Renner struggled to settle down early, often throwing too high and fast on short routes. Early in the game, he was pressured by UVA’s front four and often took off unwisely. But again, all of these negatives will improve with both time and experience. The future is indeed bright with Renner at quarterback. HOLY CRAP I LIKE OUR QUARTERBACK!!! I’m a Ravens fan as well as a Carolina grad, so having not one but TWO real live quarterbacks who can actually play on both teams at the same time is so improbable, and so glee-inducing, that I just don’t know what to do with myself.

Optimism: Gio. Effing. Bernard. The redshirt freshman had another stellar game Saturday, totaling just over 100 yards. There can be no further debate about starter status; the job is Bernard’s. Gio – or “the playmaker,” as announcer Dan Hawkins insisted on calling him (more on him in The Final Word) – repeatedly made something out of nothing, often juking defenders silly and beating defensive backs to the edge of the field.

Pessimism: For as good as Bernard has been, now-backup bruiser RB Ryan Houston has been equally disappointing. The big guy, who weighs 245 lbs, continues to insist on picking his way through the line or bouncing it outside instead of simply putting his head down and going Mike Alstott on defenders in short-yardage situations. The poor guy still thinks he has starter potential and is trying to get some serious breakaway yardage to prove it, but unfortunately for him Bernard has clearly stolen the mantle. Houston needs to accept his reduced role in the offense and get back to making linebackers wish they hadn’t tried to tackle him head-on.

Optimism: For as crappy as the offense was for most of the game, I once again have to give props to offensive coordinator John Shoop <ducking tomatoes>. Why? Well, as I’ll write in a second, the offensive line was having some trouble at the point of attack in pass protection, so Shoop worked in a huge number of rollouts for Renner from the 2nd quarter on. On the majority of plays UVA sent five, and sometimes six, rushers at Renner, but the rollouts generally prevented early and undue pressure. You can criticize some of his playcalling – even though they worked, I’m not a fan at all of the end-around series Shoop insists on running every game – but the guy made a few really smart in-game adjustments, which hasn’t often been the case.

Pessimism: Remember last week how I talked about how well the offensive line held up against Rutgers’ blitz packages? Uh… yeah. They absolutely got destroyed this week. Run protection was marginal, and pass protection was putrid. In the first quarter (during which I believe the offense ran a total of eight plays), early pressure forced Renner to check down or overthrow his targets, and for the remainder of the game most Carolina passes came off of rollouts. It’s a credit to UNC receivers, and Renner’s accuracy, that we got as much out of the passing game as we did, considering how limited your options are when you restrict your throws to one side of the field.

Optimism: Punting! Yes! Come on, I TOTALLY know this is your favorite subject. Punter Thomas Hibbard, a true freshman, had a good game save for one shank, and UVA got zero return yards on the day. The coverage team, though it employs the spread punt formation WHICH I EFFING HATE, did a great job getting downfield to prevent any sort of play

Pessimism: Kickoff coverage has sucked the whole season. For some reason, no kickoff goes beyond the 10-yard line. Also, starting place kicker Casey Barth got… injured? How? How does a kicker, whose only job is to make one repetitive motion over and over again, PULL A MUSCLE? (His backup did nicely).

Aside: Due to his sensational and inspirational-to-slow-white-guys-like-me play, I want to separately highlight the awesomeness of Carolina starting safety Matt Merletti. As you know, I’ve been calling Merletti the Vince Papale of UNC football, after the famous Philadelphia Eagles walk-on who embodied the grit and toughness of the average working joe. Merletti had 2 picks this week, one so easy it was comical and one that actually demonstrated a fair bit of athletic ability. Due to his stellar play, from here on out I am going to fuse Merletti’s name with Papale’s own legacy: meet interception and glue-play machine… MATTAVINCE PAPALETTI! It makes me want to go to Olive Garden and watch The Godfather just by saying it out loud. Try it.

Check out this monster of mayhem. Here’s Papaletti in a candid shot:

Now here’s his namesake.

Okay, Papale’s got a few years on Papaletti, but don’t you think I’m on to something here? Keep an eye out for the MATTAVINCE! PAPALETTI! Grit Play of the Week Brought To You By Chevy and Brett Favre’s Jeans, starting next week.

The Final Word: ESPNU has got to be the place where bad announcers carry out their punishment for flubbing lines and the interns get a chance to play in the broadcast truck.  For this game, the pairing was play-by-play announcer Pam Ward with color man Dan Hawkins. When Gio Bernard broke his first long run, Hawkins burst out, “FTP!” After a brief silence, he clarified: “Feed The Playmaker,” a phrase he would repeat without fail every time Bernard touched the ball for the rest of the game.

When not openly pointing out Hawkins’ mistakes, Ward herself had a bad day, remarking when Houston ran in a 3-yard touchdown, “That’s a long one for him!” In a moment of apparent glee, she burst out, “That’s a BIG BOY HIT!” when a UNC defender form-tackled a Virginia receiver. She also was convinced on at least two occasions that the offensive team was about to get a delay of game penalty when, in fact, the quarter was simply ticking away. Hawkins generally came across as overly excitable and totally underqualified, ludicrously predicting a Virginia fake punt from their own 35-yard-line.

The ESPNU cameras are clearly leftover from the non-HD era, and when televised in high-definition with a giant black bar around the edges presented a particularly depressing and blurry picture. When compared to the Fox Sports Atlantic – seriously, Fox Sports! – ESPNU’s presentation looked amateurish in comparison. In the 4th quarter, ESPNU trained their cameras on an elderly gentleman in a luxury box and put up a graphic that read, “DICK BADDOUR – UNC ATHLETIC DIRECTOR.” Wrong. Just some random old guy in a box. At one fairly crucial point, the feed simply disappeared for thirty seconds.

One last thought: It’ll be extremely interesting seeing how this Pitt- and Syracuse-to-the-ACC thing shakes out. Might have to file something your way on it as details emerge, but my gut instinct says this is a move for self-preservation to be included in an eventual college football playoff. We’ll see.

About Nate

I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010. I've written about the UNC-Duke rivalry since my best friend from high school took his talents to Durham the same year I went to Carolina. Astoundingly, we remain friends in part due to a moratorium on talking around Duke-Carolina games. Though capable of rationally approaching the rivalry, I generally prefer low-intellect vitriol, because it makes me feel better about myself. Visit my blog at http://thebestmedicineis.wordpress.com
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