One of the most remarkable things for me about the current coaching staff, during their first two campaigns, was the rapid progression of their team's play on the field. During their first season as the leaders of this program the improvements from week to week were staggering. Players suddenly, almost magically it seemed, became exponentially better from game to game. They almost never made the same mistakes twice; their ability to learn from, and correct their mistakes was almost uncanny. Most of that was due to lessons learned from early losses.
In year one, missed opportunities cost the team games against Kentucky and Oregon State. That group had to learn how to achieve success, not just handle it. Lessons were learned and despite having less talent than most of the opponents on their schedule, they only lost one game in 2010 by more than one score. The same could be said for last year's team. Except, the reasons were different. Last year, as opposed to the first season under the Strong staff, youth and inexperience were the culprits behind early season losses. The team was full of young players who were used to winning in high school; and, when they found success at the college level, they assumed it was going to be a given. That cost them games against FIU, Marshall, and Pittsburgh after big wins the week before. Much like the initial version of Strong's Cardinals their lessons came from losses, and they improved from there.
Now, in year three, some of the same lessons, along with others, need to be learned by this still young football team. The difference is that now they must learn from their victories. It's easy to be humbled and digest every word, and lesson, your staff tries to impart upon you after a loss. The taste in your mouth is sour and you'd do anything to make it go away. You'd do anything to make sure it doesn't come back. The real challenge that awaits this team is to learn that while the mistakes they made didn't cost them the sweet taste of victory, they very well could have.
I re-watched yesterday's game when I returned from PJCS, and what I saw was a team that had more fire in their bellies than their opponent in the first half, and far less in the second. I give credit to the North Carolina players and staff for making adjustments and not giving up; however, there was no excuse for that game to come down to a fourth and goal play. Furthermore, I don't put it all on the players.
First, if you add the five special teams points that should have been on the board, from the two failed conversions and the field goal that was well within the range that our kickers have shown,...blocked punt and kickoff-fumble be damned, the team is still up by ten on UNC's last possession. I don't know if the Stein to Smith conversion is a call that Will makes or not, we've heard from different sources that it is and it isn't, but I think it's time to put that one away until it's really needed. You do it against UK on your first touchdown, and that's fine, because they're not very good at football. You do it against Missouri State on your first touchdown, and suddenly North Carolina is not only expecting you to do it, but they're probably prepared to stop it. Bottom line: free points are free points, and even if the kicker had missed the field goal, at worst UNC ties the game if Andrew Johnson doesn't make that play at the end.
Second, the play calling in the third quarter was entirely different from the play calling in the first half. The offense threw the ball 19 time in the first half and ran it 18. The balance was there and it showed. In the third quarter, the offense still moved the ball right down the field on their possessions, but they only threw it 7 times compared to 12 runs. That wasn't nearly as balanced, but they did burn most of the third quarter while possessing the ball for over ten minutes. However, they couldn't find the end-zone, and they left three points on the field that would have been a welcomed cushion at the end of the game.
The play calling during the fourth quarter was nothing short of atrocious. Eight rushes and four passes, for minus one yard. The UNC defense appeared to be expecting a run on every play, and they were right two thirds of the time, while our offense seemed content to run right into the teeth of eight man fronts. Teddy has proven himself to be one of the most accurate passers, and best decision makers, in College Football through the first three weeks of the season. Call me crazy but I think he can be trusted to complete a few passes and keep the clock moving if that is the goal. Taking your foot off of the gas, getting conservative, call it what you want, but it almost cost the Cardinals the game yesterday.
Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that we won, but mistakes were made by players and coaches. Unlike the first two years under the current leadership those mistakes did not equate to a loss. My only hope is that lessons are learned from yesterday's victory. I don't pretend to know any more about about college football than the average fan; but, I do know when points are left on the field. I also know that when I see an opposing player take a check down pass 50 yards to the house, right between six players who look like they're expecting their teammates to make a play instead of flying to the ball, that they aren't going as hard as the other guys.
The program has come a looooooong way in three years. Lessons have been learned from the heartache of bitter losses arising from missed opportunities. Yesterday was not a bitter loss, but there were plenty of lessons to be learned. Let's just hope that the players who limped off the field are alright moving forward, and that this staff proves that they can impart just as much wisdom after a win as they can after a loss. I'm confident they can, but it's obvious that this young team has a lot of room to grow; and, that growing needs to start now if they're going to live up to the lofty expectations they've been saddled with, and achieve the goals they've set for themselves.