Football, week 1: The Citadel vs. North Carolina

There will be a lot of blue on display in this game.  If Kenan Stadium could sing a song on Saturday, it might sound like this:

I’m blue da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di…

That’s right, an Eiffel 65 reference.  What other game preview gives you that?

The Citadel begins another football season this Saturday.  Doesn’t it seem like the anticipation increases every year?  Of course, this year part of the reason Bulldog fans want the season to hurry up and get here is so the team doesn’t lose any more running backs before the first game.

Some fast facts:

–Series:  UNC leads 3-0 (all three games played in Chapel Hill)
–Scores:  14-7 UNC (1915), 50-0 UNC (1939), 45-14 UNC (1986)
–The Citadel alltime against current ACC schools:  6-63-2
–The Citadel alltime against ACC schools (when those schools were actually members of the ACC):  0-24

The last time the Bulldogs beat a current ACC school was in 1931, when The Citadel edged Clemson, 6-0 (in a game played in Florence, of all places).  The Citadel also tied Florida State in 1960, 0-0.  The Bulldogs haven’t seriously threatened an ACC opponent on the gridiron since 1976, when Clemson slipped past a solid Bobby Ross squad, 10-7.

The 1939 UNC team that thrashed the Bulldogs 50-0 was pretty good, going 8-1-1 that season.  Alas, the loss was to Duke.  The coach of the Tar Heels at the time was Raymond “Bear” Wolf.  Yes, “Bear” Wolf.  Years before, Wolf had been a baseball player; he played in one game in the majors, for Cincinnati, getting one more at bat than Moonlight Graham did (speaking of UNC alums).  Wolf had a good run in Chapel Hill until 1941, when he went 3-7.

The new coach was Jim Tatum, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame, but mostly for his work at Maryland.  Tatum only coached at UNC (his alma mater) for one year before enlisting in the Navy; he would later have enormous success in College Park, winning a national title with the Terrapins in 1953, before returning to North Carolina in 1956.  Tatum coached three more seasons in Chapel Hill before dying suddenly of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in 1959.  He was only 46.

While Tatum was building a championship team at Maryland (he also coached Oklahoma for one season), UNC was having a very good run of its own, thanks in large part to the exploits of the great Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice.  Justice is surely one of the best college football players not to win the Heisman Trophy (he was the runner-up twice).  North Carolina played in three major bowl games during this period, the only three times the Heels have ever played in a major bowl.  UNC lost all three games.

After some good (and bad) seasons through the 1960s, UNC would have another outstanding streak of success in the early 1970s under Bill Dooley, including an 11-1 season in 1972, marred only by a loss to Ohio State.  Interestingly, North Carolina did not finish the year in the top 10 of either poll.  Dooley would move on to Virginia Tech (and later Wake Forest).

Dick Crum took over the program from Dooley, and had some excellent seasons of his own, including 1980, when the Tar Heels (featuring Lawrence Taylor) would again go 11-1, again go undefeated in ACC play — and again struggle against a big-name non-conference opponent, this time Oklahoma (losing 41-7).  That 1980 season marks the last time UNC won the ACC title.

The next year could arguably serve as a microcosm of North Carolina’s football history.  UNC, led by tailback Kelvin Bryant, scored 161 points in its first three games in 1981.  Bryant scored an amazing 15 touchdowns in those three matchups.  Then, against Georgia Tech, Bryant injured his knee.  He would miss the next four games.  UNC hung on for two games, but after improving its record to 6-0, the Tar Heels were soundly beaten at home by a mediocre South Carolina team, 31-13.

North Carolina rebounded to beat Maryland, and then played Clemson in a game that was essentially for the ACC title.  The Heels had won 11 straight ACC contests, and the Tigers were undefeated (and had beaten Herschel Walker and Georgia).  It was the first time two ACC schools had met in football when both were ranked in the AP top 10, and it would be a memorable encounter.  Clemson prevailed, 10-8, in a game where the intensity was palpable, even to TV viewers.

North Carolina would not lose again that season, buoyed to an extent by the return of Bryant for the final two regular-season games and the Gator Bowl (where the Tar Heels would defeat Arkansas).  There was, however, one final twist of the knife.  From the “Scorecard” section of Sports Illustrated (January 11, 1982):

They say you can prove anything with statistics, and in the case of North Carolina running back Kelvin Bryant, official NCAA figures would appear to show that he didn’t exist in 1981. NCAA rules specify that to qualify as a season statistical leader a football player must appear in at least 75% of his team’s regular-season games; for the Tar Heels, who played an 11-game schedule, that meant a minimum of eight games. Because of knee surgery, Bryant played in only seven games, but he made the most of his limited participation, to put it mildly, scoring 108 points. The NCAA determines scoring leaders on a per-game basis, and it awarded the scoring title to USC’s Marcus Allen, who averaged 12.5 points a game. Because he played too few games, Bryant, with a 15.4 average, didn’t qualify to be the scoring champion, which may be fair enough. But Bryant also was excluded from the list of 25 top scorers even though—surely there’s an injustice here—he ranked fifth in total points behind Allen (138 points), Georgia’s Herschel Walker (120), SMU’s Eric Dickerson (114) and McNeese State’s Buford Johnson (l10). Absurdly, Iowa State’s Dwayne Crutchfield, who scored just 104 points, is listed in fifth place, while Bryant and his 108 points are nowhere to be seen.

This little blurb came in the same edition of the magazine  that featured Clemson wide receiver Perry Tuttle on the cover, as the Tigers had just won the national championship by defeating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.  Talk about a double whammy of what might have beens…

Crum never had a team that good again, and by the late 1980s the program was beginning to fade.  Mack Brown then arrived and basically decided to start over.  After consecutive 1-10 seasons, that may have looked like a mistake, but Brown gradually built things back up, and in his last two seasons in Chapel Hill the team went 10-2 and 11-1 .  He couldn’t quite get that one big win to push the program to the next level, though, as the Heels could not beat Florida State.  After that 11-1 season (in 1997), Brown left for a program that he felt he could push over the top — Texas.

As the above paragraphs illustrate, UNC has had an occasionally-close-but-no-cigar kind of history in football — sometimes good, sometimes very good, but never quite getting over the hump (at least nationally) for various reasons, and thus always remaining in the large shadow cast by the school’s basketball program.  As the years have gone by, the degree of difficulty in trying to escape that shadow seems to have increased.

After ten seasons of around .500 ball under two coaches, the folks at UNC decided to shake things up and bring in Butch Davis, who is known as somebody who can really recruit (proof:  the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, which had 16 future NFL first-round draft picks on its roster).  Whether Davis can put it all together at North Carolina is the big question.  There are high hopes in Chapel Hill this season, however, as he returns 38 lettermen (including 15 starters) from a team that won eight games last season and is ranked #20 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

One of those returning starters is quarterback T.J. Yates, who presumably will have fully recovered from an injury suffered this past spring while playing Ultimate Frisbee.  I’m guessing that summer activities for the Tar Heels were restricted to checkers and backgammon in an attempt to keep everyone healthy.

Speaking of UNC quarterbacks, one of the curious things about the Heels’ football history is the lack of success of any North Carolina quarterback in the NFL (at least as a QB).  There have been 182 UNC football players who went on to the NFL (as of the conclusion of the 2008-09 season), but only two of them have been quarterbacks — and one of them, Jim Camp, never threw a pass in the league.  The other, Scott Stankavich, played in only four career games (no starts); two of those games came as a “replacement player” during the 1987 players’ strike.

Ronald Curry has had a decent career in the NFL, but as a wide receiver.  Curry has attempted four passes in the league, completing none of them.  There have actually been fifteen former Tar Heels who have attempted at least one NFL pass.  Only six of them, however, have actually completed one.  Stankavage is one of those six, but the Heel with the most yards passing in the NFL is halfback Ed Sutton, who threw for 146 yards in his career, with one TD.  Don McCauley is the only other UNC player to throw a TD pass in the NFL.

I totalled all the NFL passing statistics for former UNC players.  I also totalled the passing statistics for The Citadel’s Stump Mitchell (who threw nine passes during his career, including a TD toss to Roy Green) and Paul Maguire (who threw one pass during his career, completing it for 19 yards).  Check out the cumulative stats comparison:

UNC:  19-70, 315 yards, 2 TDs, 6 INTs, QB rating of 19.6
The Citadel:  5-10, 102 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, QB rating of 119.6

A 100-point difference in QB rating?!  Advantage, Bulldogs.  Of course, that won’t mean anything on Saturday.

Last season, the Bulldogs were 4-8.  This followed a 7-4 campaign in 2007 that had fans thinking a return to the FCS playoffs was not far away.  Instead, the Bulldogs lost six straight games during the course of the 2008 season, narrowly avoided a seventh straight defeat to a poor UT-Chattanooga squad, and then got pummeled by Tim Tebow and eventual BCS champion Florida in the season finale.

Some of those games were close (The Citadel lost three Southern Conference games by a total of 12 points), but on the whole the 4-8 record was a fair reflection of the Bulldogs’ play.  Comparing some league-only statistics from the 2007 and 2008 seasons is illuminating.  Ignoring the raw totals, which are a touch misleading (scoring was down in the SoCon last season as compared to 2007), and looking at league rankings:

-Scoring defense:  4th (2007), 8th (2008)
-Pass efficiency defense:  3rd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Red Zone defense:  2nd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Turnover margin:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion offense:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion defense:  2nd (2007, 5th (2008)

That’s basically the story of the 2008 season right there.  The defense had trouble getting off the field (SoCon opponents completed over 64% of their passes against The Citadel, and the Bulldogs only intercepted two passes all season in league play).  Inside the 20, The Citadel’s defense had no answers (allowing 23 touchdowns in 31 red zone situations).

Offensively, the running game struggled, as rushing yardage per game dropped by one-third.  Perhaps more ominously, the number of third downs converted via the rush fell substantially.  This also affected the offense’s red zone success rate, as the team scored only 18 touchdowns in 34 opportunities inside the 20 (the worst ratio in the league), and led to over-reliance on an erratic (I’m being kind here) placekicking game.  The Bulldogs only made 7 of 12 field goals attempted in red zone possessions.  No other conference team missed more than one such attempt all season.

After a season like that, it’s not surprising changes were made.  The Bulldogs are going to return to a 4-3 defense after last year’s attempt at a 3-4 resulted in the D getting pushed all over the gridiron.  That rather obvious lack of physicality was also addressed by an aggressive offseason conditioning program.  There are a couple of new defensive coaches, too.

There has been a good pre-season buzz about the defensive line, which is nice, but there also needs to be more playmaking from the linebackers and secondary.  In other words:  get stops and force turnovers.  The key is to corral more interceptions (fumble recoveries tend to be somewhat random).  Scoring touchdowns on defense would be a plus, too, but you have to get the turnovers first before you can think six.  The Bulldogs have recorded 13 sacks in conference play each of the last two seasons; a few more this year certainly couldn’t hurt.

The offensive line should be strong, although illness has been a problem in fall practice, what with one lineman suffering from an acid-reflux problem and another battling mononucleosis.  That’s still much better than the Bulldogs’ running back situation.  The starter for UNC may be walk-on freshman Bucky Kennedy, walk-on freshman Remi Biakabutuka, or one of the backup bagpipers.  Biakabutuka would definitely be the choice if the opening-game opponent were Ohio State rather than North Carolina, as just the name “Biakabutuka” on his jersey would be enough to unnerve the Buckeyes, thanks to his older brother Tim.

Another potential threat as a runner is backup quarterback Miguel Starks, who last year impressed many observers just by standing on the sideline during games.  However, he’s never played a down of college football.  It will be interesting to see what he can do once he gets on the field.

I’m of the opinion that the incumbent starting quarterback, Bart Blanchard, didn’t have that bad a season last year, as I don’t think he got much help from the rest of the backfield (and the offensive line seemed to lack consistency).  He is a bit limited as a runner, which is not ideal in Kevin Higgins’ offense, but that was true the year before as well and the Bulldogs managed just fine when he stepped in for Duran Lawson.  Higgins wants him to have a better completion percentage, but part of the problem Blanchard had last season trying to avoid incompletions was a limited number of passing targets — basically, his options were the tight ends and Andre Roberts.

Of course, Roberts is a nice target to have.  It would really help Roberts (and Blanchard) if a second receiver emerged this season (Kevin Hardy?), which never happened last year.  If another Bulldog wideout does develop into a threat, Roberts could wind up with fewer catches but more yards per reception.  Roberts in space is a big play waiting to happen, as anyone who has watched him return punts can attest.  I’m glad he’s not going to be returning kickoffs this year, though.  I worry about him wearing down over the course of the season.

The placekicking needs to be much improved.  Last year was just not acceptable.  The Bulldogs also must replace Mark Kasper, who was a solid punter for four seasons (second in the league in net punting last year).  The Citadel needs to improve its kickoff coverage (next-to-last in the conference in 2008).  Basically, the special teams must get better across the board (with the exception of the punt return team, which thanks to Roberts was the nation’s best unit).

As for Saturday’s game, a lot depends on whether Blanchard and Roberts have fully recovered from sprained ankles each suffered during fall practice.  If they are both good to go, I would expect the Bulldogs to be reasonably competitive against North Carolina.

While the Heels return 15 starters, they must replace some excellent wide receivers (including Hakeem Nicks) and two starters on their offensive line.  UNC’s o-line has taken a bit of a hit in the pre-season with some injuries and attrition (nothing like The Citadel’s running back situation, though).  The starting group should still be solid, however.

T.J. Yates should be okay after his frisbee ordeal.  This will be his third year starting games at QB for UNC.  Yates is good at taking care of the ball (only four interceptions last season).  UNC has a nice corps of running backs, led by Shaun Draughn, who rushed for 866 yards in 2008.  The Tar Heels will definitely need to find some new wideouts, as no returning receiver caught more than 11 passes last year.

UNC rotates a number of defensive linemen, and almost all of them are very good athletes (and most of them are huge).  Marvin Austin has first-round pick potential, Cam Thomas has all the makings of a future NFL nosetackle, and Ladson native Robert Quinn won the ACC’s Piccolo Award after recovering from a brain tumor to have an outstanding freshman campaign.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, the Tar Heels didn’t do a particularly good job creating sacks last season (only 22 all season; the d-line only had 5.5 of those).  Still, this group will be a formidable challenge for The Citadel’s offensive line.

North Carolina has a really good trio of starting linebackers, led by Bruce Carter, who doubles as a great kick-blocker (five last year).  The defensive backfield should be excellent, with several ball hawks ready to repeat last year’s success in intercepting passes (the Heels had 20 picks).

UNC did struggle defensively on third down conversions, ranking last in the ACC in that category.

North Carolina’s special teams were okay last year, although its net punting was mediocre.  The Heels will be breaking in a new punter this season, which might be good news for Andre Roberts (and Mel Capers), although first The Citadel’s defense has to actually force a punt.

Last season UNC opened with McNeese State, and struggled before finally winning the game 35-27.  It should be pointed out that the Cowboys were a solid FCS club (finishing 7-4, and featuring a quality offense), and that the game was affected by a lightning delay.  If anything, that relatively close call may make the North Carolina players more wary of FCS opposition.

The goals for this game, from The Citadel’s point of view, are for the team to be as competitive as possible, and to avoid major injuries.  It isn’t realistic to expect a victory, particularly against a pre-season Top 20 team.  The Bulldogs just want to make UNC work for a win.

To do that, avoiding turnovers on offense is a must.  I suspect that The Citadel is not going to have much of a rushing attack in this game, which is going to be a problem.  It’s also going to be a tough game to break in a new punter.  I think the Bulldog defense has a chance to establish itself to a certain extent.  However, the UNC offense is not turnover-prone and is more than capable of grinding out drives (although this may not be a bad thing for The Citadel; the fewer big plays, the better).

Obviously, the players won’t be thinking the way I’m thinking.  They’re traveling to Chapel Hill looking for a victory, which is a good thing.  That’s how they should approach this game.  Besides, you never know what might happen.  After all, my fantasy football team is called The Jack Crowes.

I’m just ready for kickoff.

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