Once Tech scrapped that game plan – along about the start of the second half – tailback P. J. Daniels and quarterback Reggie Ball began demoralizing a UNC defense that had maintained at least a modicum of respectability until that point in the game.
"The Old Trench Fighter," former UNC coach Bill Dooley once asked rhetorically, ‘Why throw the ball when you can run down there and hand it to them?' And the only reason Carolina remained within reach on the scoreboard early in the fourth quarter was because Tech insisted on trying to establish the pass, even when it became obvious that the Tar Heels had no answer against the rush.
Put simply, the Yellow Jackets could have handed the ball off to Daniels on every single play of the game and won easily; using timeouts – both called and TV – to provide him enough rest to keep going throughout the afternoon.
As unexplainable as was UNC's decision to punt on a 4th-and-4 and down by 10 points with 3:29 remaining, so was the Yellow Jackets' insistence on ruining near perfect drives by abandoning the rush as they neared the red zone.
"We held them in check in the first half and that was great," UNC linebacker Doug Justice said. "They would gain some yards here and there, but we would stop them and get off the field. But we came out in the second half and that old defense that we had just reappeared for us."
The enigma that surrounds the UNC defense has become more difficult to grasp with each game. While it clearly understands the "bend but don't break" dynamic – as is evidenced by its numerous red zone stops this season, why the coaching staff can't recognize a weakness that is so obvious early in the game, and then subsequently make at least an adequate adjustment before the final gun is indeterminable.
And this year's defensive debacle is not all about talent and experience, as many Carolina sympathizers would like to believe. Here's another tough pill to swallow, while improvement can only be inevitable in 2004, the Tar Heels are a long way from turning the field around, so to speak, defensively.
Even in the transition from Mack Brown to Carl Torbush to John Bunting, the Tar Heels have still been able to maintain decent influx of talent. It's Carolina after all. If UNC coaches abandoned recruiting altogether, they should still be able to field a competitive ACC team via the laurels of the state's most respected University – both athletically and academically.
So is there something about Chapel Hill that seems to breed underachievement? Is it similar to a perceived New York phenomenon that often, but mysteriously, puts way too much pressure on the highly touted athlete? That hypothesis would seem laughable if anyone ever attempted to compare the Raleigh-Durham "media circus" to that of New York's.
That concept may be a little far-fetched to comprehend in the natural world, but there is something about putting on a Carolina uniform that immediately adds pressure of which the only outlet is achieved through incredible performances or unexplainable failures.
Whether there is a mysticism at work or not, in many cases a propulsion to the top is best achieved via a recoil off the bottom. This season spawned countless sportswriters to utter such superlatives like: ‘Man, this is the worst defense I've ever seen.'
The Tar Heels' offense this season has been exemplary, but overshadowed by the defense's ineptness.
But here's some good news, and it centers around Carolina's relative youth.
Other than All-ACC free safety Dexter Reid, and on-again-off-again starting cornerback Michael Waddell, everyone will be back next year. The only thing that bodes better than the certain improvement of Carolina's defense is the fact that all but offensive regulars' Bobby Blizzard, Willie Parker and Jeb Terry will be back as well.
While most fans were disappointed with Carolina's lack of visible improvement in between this season and last, next year's edition can only be enhanced. Next year should be a showcase for Darian Durant, Ronnie McGill, Mike Mason, Jawarski Pollock, Jason Brown, etc.
"Right now, we know where our problems are," UNC coach John Bunting said. "They are maturity, strength and stamina. We've just got to keep trying to get those young kids better."