Four Downs: UNC tops MTSU, secures first win

North Carolina managed to get its first win of the season against Middle Tennessee State 40-20 (in a game that was not that close), but the Tar Heels looked sloppy at times doing it. Even from the opening coin toss. Here are four observations from the game:
1. Maybe the Tar Heels will miss dynamic tailback Gio Bernard a little more than originally thought. Or right guard Jonathan Cooper. Or both

UNC’s offense line acquitted itself pretty well against South Carolina in Week 1, but that wasn’t the case so much in Week 2 against certainly a defense that is not as good. Against South Carolina, the Tar Heels had 99 yards rushing on 36 attempts, but the backs were able to break off some runs. Against Middle Tennessee State, the Tar Heels had 134 rushing yards on 41 carries. And a line that let Bryn Renner get sacked just 11 times last year has already allowed five through two games this season. So it’s starting to become a concern. 

It didn’t help that Landon Turner, one of UNC’s returning starters up front, went out with an injury in the first half. Things only went downhill when it came to both establishing the run and protecting Renner after that. 
Fedora didn’t have any easy answers, either. Except that it wasn’t just one issue, like Turner getting hurt, or a young player struggling. 
“I’ll be honest with you, that was the biggest mystery to me. Coming out of that game, the entire game I’m trying to figure out why we’re not running the ball effectively,” Fedora said. “Until I sit down and look at that film, it’s hard for me to say. But I’m sure it’s a combination of a lot of things. 
“I don’t think it’s one guy who’s just not doing his job. That would be easy to see in a game. I think it’s just a multitude of things. I think it’s one guy here on the next play, another guy here. A lot of that has to with youth up front and that experience, of knowing, because there’s some times that you’re going to have to make an adjustment without being able to communicate it. And if you’ve had multiple reps with each other, you know that that adjustment is going to be made on the snap. And those aren’t happening right now.”
2. If UNC wants to do the little things right, perhaps it should start with the coin toss

In a weird twist, the Tar Heels ended up kicking off to Middle Tennessee State to start each half. And that’s because one of the four gameday captains (in this case, it was sophomore wide receiver Quinshad Davis) had a “miscommunication” with the official after MTSU won the toss and elected to defer. Davis instead chose which goal the Tar Heels would defend. 

“I was definitely stunned by that,” UNC quarterback Bryn Renner said after the game, trying hard to hide a smile. “I asked Quinshad about that and got a clarification, but I think he just misunderstood the referee. I hope that doesn’t happen, um, next week. … I think Coach Fedora’s going to handle it internally.”
Fedora had some fun with it too, when asked. “Well, that was our strategy to go into the game,” he said. “We felt like if we kicked off twice to them, it would help them out. We wanted to see if we could get more time with the defense on the field. No, it was just a miscommunication between the captains and myself and I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
InsideCarolina.com’s Greg Barnes went digging through the archives and found examples of other teams doing it in the past…just not the Tar Heels. It was a bizarre circumstance, to be sure. 
Larry Fedora said he didn’t realize something was wrong until he saw referee Ron Cherry looking at him strangely. “(Cherry was) looking at me like I was an idiot, and I didn’t know why he kept looking at me like that and then I found out afterwards,” Fedora said.
It’s all fun and games — mostly because it didn’t cost the Tar Heels a win, of course — but Fedora was concerned about its larger implications. He does want to see his team pay better attention to detail. 
“Sure, it concerns me. All the little details that we screw up on that — when we go back and look at the film, that’s all we’re doing is dissecting each and every play. We don’t just say, ‘Hey, good play’,” Fedora said. “So we’re looking at the details on every single play in every phase. Everything that happens in a game. That’s a big thing, to have that type of miscommunication and that happens in a game. That’s a big thing that can’t happen.”

3. The Tar Heel defense still has its flaws, but it is at its best when it can force turnovers

On the first drive of the game, Middle Tennessee State reached the UNC 1-yard line before quarterback Logan Kilgore eventually threw an interception on third and goal. Safety Tre Boston made a nice one-handed grab on that play, and it was one of the four turnovers the UNC defense was able to force. 

The Tar Heels had to defend first in each half, and each time, Middle Tennessee State went on long drives. Over 100 of the Blue Raiders’ 401 total yards came on just those two opening-half drives. In the first half, Middle Tennessee State had 68 yards on its opening drive and 31 the rest of the half. 
“The main thing was we just settled down after the first drive. Let me tell you, it was huge getting the turnover down there on the end zone on the first drive. So they go 78 yards, they march it all the way down the field, get down to the 1… and then don’t get it in and we get the ball back,” Fedora said. “That’s huge. I thought our defense, especially in that first half, really really played really well.”
4. Norkeithus Otis, if you need him

UNC’s Bandit (a defensive end/linebacker hybrid) has had a great start to the season. The junior was a contributor on special teams for much of his first two years, and he struggled to get the new defense down last season. He’s clearly gotten it down now.  In his first career start against South Carolina, he had five tackles, two for loss and a sack with two quarterback hurries. He followed up his debut with five more tackles, two for loss (both sacks), a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble. 

After losing Kevin Reddick and Sylvester Williams to the NFL — both playmakers who opponents had to scheme around — the UNC defense desperately needed someone to emerge. Otis could have that kind of impact, and he has already. It’s early, but it’s a promising start for a guy like Otis, who is oozing with potential and talent.