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September 8, 2011The competition Carolina faces on Saturday when Rutgers comes to Kenan Stadium for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff will be considerably greater than the James Madison team UNC crushed a week ago in the season opener.
To what degree Rutgers (1-0) is better remains a bit of a mystery, however. The Scarlett Knights' athletic superiority versus North Carolina Central, Rutgers' opening opponent, was far more than the disparity between UNC and James Madison.
JMU returned 10 defensive starters from a team that defeated Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., a year ago. But the Tar Heels (1-0) played in such an efficient and dominating fashion during the 42-10 victory that there is some mystery as to UNC's actual status as well.
"Any time you win, you can always go back the next day and find some things you need to work on," UNC interim head coach Everett Withers said. "It gives you great motivation to go in there and coach your butt off as a coach. We want to be better. Our goal is to be better Week 2 than we were Week 1.
"That is the whole emphasis. How can we get better, Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, so we can be better when we play Rutgers -- bottom line."
One area that will be difficult to improve, at least statistically, is the play of Carolina redshirt sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner. Renner had an extraordinary debut by completing 22 of 23 pass attempts for 277 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for another TD.
His single incompletion was an interception that occurred when he tried to throw into double coverage on a deep route down the middle of the field.
Renner's completion percentage (.957) set an Atlantic Coast Conference single-game record for a quarterback who attempts at least 20 passes. It was the second-best in NCAA history.
"He's as good as I've seen," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "I've heard over the years how talented he is. This kid is something else. I read somewhere they call him baby Brett Favre, but I can see why.
"He's mobile. He's got a cannon [of an arm]. He can make every throw. Not a ball hit the ground Saturday. I don't know if I've ever seen that in a college football game."
Of course, standard practice for an opponent playing a first-time starter is to stop the running game and force the young QB to throw on the opposition's terms. So Carolina's number-one goal offensively must be to run successfully and protect Renner when he does throw.
Accomplishing this goal will be a challenge, given the style of play Rutgers prefers and the talent the Scarlet Knights possess to execute their defense.
"[UNC offensive line coach Sam] Pittman said it best," Withers said. "They are a schematic defense that blitzes you for the different kinds of plays that you run. They do a really good job of everybody covering for everybody when they do blitz.
"We have to be very, very good up front this week as far as protecting the quarterback and giving ourselves running lanes. I feel like it is one of the better defenses we will play."
One attribute Carolina has in its favor is the quality of Renner's footwork exceeds his actual game experience. He displayed ideal fundamentals in shifting and sliding when James Madison tried to pressure him.
The UNC offensive line is an outstanding group, but Renner's footwork in the pocket is so good that he can make the line look even better than it may have performed on a given play. Once last week, a JMU defender beat the Carolina offensive lineman trying to block him. Rather than take off running or rushing his throw, Renner calmly shifted his feet and slid out of the way of the rush and then delivered a completed pass.
Another positive for Renner is the seamless manner in which he and the running backs executed on play-action passes. They looked as if they had been playing together for three or four years, not a matter of one spring and a summer camp.
"He had a command about him, that for a first game was pretty impressive," Withers said.
Now the challenge will be to equal or surpass the initial performance, particularly when that performance edged awfully close to perfection.