The ball hadn’t even been kicked, and it was already apparent that North Carolina was far from a polished product in its second game of the season.
Tre Boston's interception in the end zone spoiled Middle Tennessee's opening drive and swung momentum back to UNC.
A lapse in communication between captain Quinshad Davis and head referee Ron Cherry led UNC to mistakenly elect to kick off to start both halves. When Middle Tennessee State won the coin toss and deferred the return, UNC instead chose to defend a certain end zone instead of receiving the ball to start the game.
The faux pas ended up not making too much of a difference — UNC (1-1) won 40-20 in its home opener, and the contest was never in real doubt. But, perhaps it was a harbinger for a game that became wrought with sloppy play and mistakes by the Tar Heels from the opening coin toss to the waning minutes.
“That’s a big thing, to have that kind of miscommunication happen in a game. That’s a big thing that can’t happen,” coach Larry Fedora said of the coin toss blunder. “We’ve got a lot to correct. We’ve got a lot of room for improvement in all three phases.”
A Tre Boston interception saved the UNC defense from what was shaping up to be its second-straight sluggish start. MTSU and quarterback Logan Kilgore drove 68 yards down to the goal line in rather dominant fashion on the game’s opening sequence. But, the Tar Heels stuffed running back Jordan Parker on the one-yard line, and two plays later Boston snagged Kilgore’s pass with his right hand and came down with the interception in the end zone.
UNC capitalized on the opportunity, going 80 yards on five plays and finishing the drive with a 26-yard touchdown run by Romar Morris.
“I feel like (the interception) almost broke their will,” said Darius Lipford, who had seven tackles and a sack. “They came in hot hitting; they were making plays they probably shouldn’t have, and for us to shut them down … that really took the momentum from them and put it in our hands.”
UNC held MTSU on the next possession and scored on the ensuing drive when quarterback Bryn Renner snuck in from the goal line.
The Tar Heels pushed their lead to 20 midway through the second quarter when Morris found pay dirt for the second time. UNC took a 23-0 advantage into halftime after Thomas Moore hit a 39-yard field goal as time expired.
Romar Morris ran for two touchdowns during UNC's 40-20 win Saturday.
Following the first drive, MTSU only amassed 31 yards for the rest of the first half, and it appeared UNC was well on its way to the type of blowout that’s expected against an inferior opponent at home.
But, the Tar Heels made waste of the first-half momentum they built. They started the second half flat, and MTSU made them pay for it on a 68-yard touchdown drive. UNC's offense was similarly sluggish, gaining just 50 yards and scoring three points on another Moore field goal throughout the third quarter.
The Blue Raiders cut UNC’s lead in half early in the fourth quarter, when freshman Ryan Switzer fumbled on UNC’s own 25-yard line, and Jared Singletary scooped it up and ran for a touchdown.
The Tar Heels eventually recovered, scoring on two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter while holding the Blue Raiders scoreless until the final minute.
Despite the final margin, there was still a sense of dissatisfaction following the game. The Tar Heels turned the ball over twice — once on Switzer’s fumble and once on a Renner interception, which snapped a streak of 140 consecutive passes without one. Significant holes reappeared in the Tar Heel defense, which gave up 184 rushing yards and twice was bailed out by interceptions on poor Kilgore passes in the red zone. Even the special teams got in on the disappointment, failing to recover an onside kick during the late-game garbage minutes.
“I definitely think we have further to go,” Boston said. “We can be a much better team. That wasn’t even close to what we can be, and I’ve seen us play way better.”
What bothered Fedora most was the lack of rhythm in UNC’s offense. The Tar Heels gained 511 yards and scored 40 points, but the unit was only firing on about half its cylinders all game. Fedora credits that to an inability to consistently gain yards on the ground.
“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. “I didn’t think we had the same energy level when we started the second half that we had when we went into halftime, and that was disappointing.”
At the end of the day, a win is still a win, and UNC did have several positives to build on. The playbook opened up for Renner, and he was able to connect with receivers for big gains time and again. UNC’s defense was able to generate more pressure on Kilgore, resulting in four sacks and three interceptions.
The bandit duo of Lipford and Norkeithus Otis continued to set the pace for the Tar Heels, combining for 12 tackles, three sacks and four tackles for losses.
But, the schedule only gets more difficult from this point forward. Following a bye week, the Tar Heels open ACC play at Georgia Tech, and they know improvements must be made before then.
“We know we didn’t play well, but we’re happy because we got the win. We’re going to rejoice and enjoy the win, but we’ve got to bounce back because we know we’re going to have to score a lot of points against Georgia Tech,” said wide receiver Sean Tapley, who led UNC with 93 receiving yards. “Hopefully, we won’t have two bad games in a row and we can turn it on at the right time.”