Optipessimism Week 5: North Carolina – East Carolina

Before getting to this week’s Optipessimism, I have to beat my own chest for a minute and explain to you, lovely readers, my commitment to Tar Heel football. Upon hearing that the night game against ECU would only be televised in my area on a channel called the CBS Sports Network, and I didn’t get it, I called up Comcast and asked what it would cost to just buy it for a day, like pay per view or something. I had to buy a whole “package” of sports channels for a whopping $5 a month, though the low cost meant I wasn’t too broken up about it (I know, I’m undermining my heroics statement). So I have officially spent real money now this season on Carolina football in absentia; and I promised not to donate any money to the program when they fired my precious Butch Davis! (I’m kidding. Seriously. Donating money requires, well, money.)

The reason I’m telling you all this is because part of the sports package included NFL RedZone. Which is, hands down, the most perfect sports channel for a football fan ever invented. It’s amazing. You literally miss nothing. I sat down at 1 PM on my couch on Sunday and watched, enraptured, for hours. I caught nearly every touchdown, almost all the important plays, and felt like I could carry a legitimate conversation about the flow of all 10 or so games. It’s incredible. And there are no commercials. My question: how the heck has no one done this yet for college football? (And ESPN Goal Line doesn’t count; they don’t cover all the games.) I can understand there would be some serious obstacles, namely:

  • Negotiating TV deals not only with CBS, ABC, Fox and the Worldwide Leader, but also with regional networks like the ACC Network (which is so bad it should just be grateful anyone watches it), the Big Ten Network, the Pac-Whatever Network, and the unbelievably self-aggrandizing Longhorn Network. This would have to be completed with the totally realistic possibility that the contract could cease to exist if a school’s conference affiliation changes;
  • How to decide which of the overwhelmingly large number of college games to highlight;
  • Figuring out how to digitally erase Brent Musberger and Pam Ward from television;
  • Secretly dealing with everyone but NBC to intentionally exclude Notre Dame;
  • Hiring Gus Johnson to narrate every single game highlight, plus buying the necessary adrenaline shots to keep him alive.

BUT STILL. How awesome would this be? Not only would Saturdays be completely set, you’d be able to intelligently talk about every football game that happened. It’d be a gold mine. Heck, the NFL Network could run it so that the networks don’t squabble over rights. Anyone have an in with the sports broadcasting business? Okay, on to this week’s Optipessimism.

Optimism:Renner Watch time. Renner’s stats against East Carolina: 13-20 for 230 yards, 4

Week-to-week improvement.

TD’s and 0 INT’s. Obviously, the 4 TD number stands out, but two of those go directly to Dwight Jones’ awesomeness (we’ll get to him in a second). What impressed me most about Renner tonight was his consistency. While he still looked like a very young quarterback, he wasn’t at all shaken by playing in rowdy Greenville, especially as the game went on and he settled into a rhythm. He took no sacks, threw the ball away when he was supposed to, and didn’t make the risky/dangerous throws that absolutely killed Carolina last week against Georgia Tech.  Renner is showing improvement week-to-week, which really is the most important thing for a first-time quarterback. We’ll get there with Renner.

Pessimism: He is still maturing. Renner still sometimes senses pressure coming before it gets there, so when the much-maligned offensive line successfully picks up the pressure, he’s already running away. This nearly ended in disaster for Renner once, when backed up against his own goal line he nearly was tackled in the end zone. But he’ll get there.

Optimism:Dwight Jones continues to absolutely destroy opposing defenses. Against GT, it


was the “I AM THE MAN” drive; this week, it was the “I OWN YOU” catches. His first touchdown catch came on a jump ball between him and a smaller defender. Jones simply waited for the defensive back to mess up and tip the ball into the air, then caught it with all the nonchalance of my grandma weighing fruit at the grocery store. His second was an incredible one-handed grab in tight coverage that said to ECU’s (bad) secondary, “I FIGHT TO WIN! FOR ME! FOR ME!!!” Wait, what? Jones isn’t a 6’6” juiced-up Russian superhuman? Could have fooled me.  The second catch prompted a friend of mine to text me, “When did Calvin Johnson commit to Carolina?” At times, Jones decides he is going to carry the team. And he can.

Pessimism: Kickoffs, and the associated coverage, has been terrible the entire season. But nowhere was it on clearer display than Saturday night in Greenville. Trase Jones, the kickoff guy, never got the ball inside the 10. ECU routinely returned the ball to their own 40. Off kickoffs, ECU average starting position was their own 34, a huge disadvantage for the Tar Heels. With the exception of stellar walk-on punter Thomas Hibbard, special teams in general has suffered since kicker Casey Barth went out with an injury; Thomas Moore pushed a very makeable field goal way wide at the end of the first half.

Optimism: Gio Bernard. 24 carries, 146 yards. Darren Sproles. Boom. It’s almost uncanny how much better the offensive line plays when Bernard is lined up behind them; when Houston was getting carries in the second half, the holes that were there earlier simply disappeared. Part of it was definitely UNC easing up and getting backups some game experience, but those cutback lanes just ceased to exist.

Pessimism: Ryan Houston (shaking head sadly). Houston got way more playing time than he deserved tonight, often coming up short in the short-yardage situations for which he was designed. Houston continues to try and spin off tackles, which kills off all his momentum; he’d be much better off lowering his shoulder and running over some people. Houston needs to realize his role is to wreck people, not rack up 20-yard gains.

Optimism: Intangibly, maybe the best thing to come out of this game was seeing the discipline of the Tar Heels, especially on the offensive line. The Pirates got a little chippy at times, pushing and shoving and doing some extra holding, but the Heels held their composure. In all, Carolina was only penalized once, a facemask call. No false starts, no jumping offsides, and most importantly, no holding. Part of this was definitely a loose refereeing crew (I thought they generally did a good job), but part of it was team discipline. Frankly, it bodes well for Withers’ chances as a future head coach.

Pessimism: Also intangibly, UNC suffered two key injuries – DE Tydreke Powell left with a shoulder injury and did not return, and my favorite, Mattavince Papaletti, left with an undisclosed injury on the penultimate play of the game. The injury was undisclosed because the CBS Sports Network announcers were too busy doing a sideline interview with someone nobody cared about to mention it. With an already thin secondary, Carolina could ill-afford to lose its senior leader. Especially not when that senior leader is Mattavince!! Papaletti!! Thankfully, the post-game injury report indicated that Papaletti only had the wind knocked out of him.

Speaking of which, before the Final Word it’s time for your MATTAVINCE! PAPALETTI! Grit Play of the Week, brought to you by Chevy and Brett Favre’s jeans. Late in the second quarter, UNC defensive tackle Sylvester Williams – a giant, 6’3” 320-lb hulk of a man – dove for a tipped ball and managed to bring it in, stopping an ECU drive cold. The resulting UNC drive led to a missed field goal, but it was gritty all the same for a defensive lineman. Go Williams. Go Papaletti. Go America.

Optimism: Creating all those turnovers was, quite simply, really fun to watch. ECU did a lot of shooting itself in the foot, but credit goes to the defense both for recovering those fumbles and catching those interceptions. It could have been a lot more, too; UNC dropped 2 very easy interceptions in the second half.

Pessimism: It has to be worrying to Coach Withers that for the third straight week in a row, UNC has given up over 450 yards of offense. I thought at the beginning of the year this team had a chance to be special; against the run, they clearly can be. But more and more, I’ve seen the linebackers forced to drop into deeper coverage because the Carolina secondary simply cannot cover. ECU was a bad team. All of Carolina’s victories thus far have come against bad-to-mediocre teams. When Carolina plays an ACC-good team (which still isn’t saying much, Clemson excepted) with a good quarterback, there’s a possibility the game ends ugly. That said, you can’t complain too much about being 4-1 with the lone loss coming against a team that could break into the top 10 in the country next week. We probably won’t get a real good sense of this team until the Sanctions Bowl against Miami on October 15.

Final Word: Is there anything more dangerous than a one-directional rivalry? It sounds foolish in the wake of Carolina’s 35-20 cruising victory over East Carolina, but I was legitimately worried about this game. It had all the characteristics of a trap game: opponent strength that plays to your team’s weaknesses, a night game in a stadium infamous for bad drunks (the announcer noted “the fans have had all day to lather up”), and a home team that values the matchup much more than the visitors. Games like this are scary, because to the other team it’s a huge rivalry game, but for you it doesn’t mean much, so you get a large emotion gradient, if there is such a thing.

A perfect example is the University of Maryland basketball program. MD is located in a sort of no-man’s-land geographically for the ACC, but they usually claim their #1 rival as Duke, with Carolina as a secondary rival (I’m from the DC area, so I hear this all the time). When Duke comes to town, it is the game of the year. It’s their… well, Duke-Carolina. The last time Maryland beat Duke, in March of 2010, the students lit mattresses on fire and rioted on a busy (and open to traffic) thoroughfare to the point where police officers beat a student into the hospital. Whereas Duke, on the other hand, has Carolina to get amped about. To them, it was just another game. It’s more or less the same with Maryland and UNC. I can think of a couple more examples off the top of my head specific to football – Cal against USC, Georgia against Florida, and Texas A&M against Texas (who care more for the rivalry with Oklahoma). Thankfully, my fears did not come true, but admit it – the thought crossed your mind.

Until next time, fair readers.

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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