Withers wins UNC debut

Published 11:51 pm Saturday, September 3, 2011

CHAPEL HILL— For weeks, Everett Withers refused to let anyone focus on his debut as North Carolina’s interim coach. Fittingly, he celebrated his first win Saturday by praising his young quarterback and honoring the man he replaced a week before training camp.
Bryn Renner threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns while setting an Atlantic Coast Conference record for accuracy in his first start, helping the Tar Heels beat James Madison 42-10.
When it was over, Renner sought out Withers on the sideline and greeted him with a big hug. Then Withers said the team would send a game ball to Butch Davis, who was unexpectedly fired amid the NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct within the program.
“It was kind of a sentimental moment between me and coach Withers,” Renner said of the postgame hug. “We had Coach Davis on our minds and our hearts. It’s been said all week that Coach Davis built this team and it’s his team, so I think I just needed to go and give a little hug after his first win and my first start.”
Athletic director Dick Baddour said Davis was at Kenan Stadium, though he wasn’t spotted in the stands. Withers said Davis called him Tuesday.
“It hit (him) the first time he was not going to be sitting in that special teams meeting,” Withers said.
“It hit me. So I told the kids on Thursday that we’re getting ready to paint this ball up for Coach and give it to him.”
Some players said Withers told them Davis would be there, though Withers was cagey about whether he knew for sure if Davis would attend.
“No, he didn’t tell me that,” Withers said. “But an ol’ ball coach, it’s hard to keep away from a good ballgame.”
Withers had spent the past three seasons as defensive coordinator. But when chancellor Holden Thorp said the NCAA probe had caused too much cumulative damage to the university’s reputation for Davis to continue, Withers had his first head-coaching position in 24 seasons in college and the NFL.
In fact, Withers’ debut was eerily similar to Davis’ debut four years earlier. That also came against James Madison, with the Tar Heels breaking in a first-time starter in T.J. Yates and scoring the first 24 points en route to a 30-7 halftime lead and a 37-14 victory.
This time, the Tar Heels scored the first 21 points and led 28-7 at half when James Madison kicker Cameron Starke plunked the right upright on a 20-yard field goal just before the break.
Renner completed 22 of 23 passes, with his only mistake being an interception on a deep ball in the second quarter. The sophomore completed his first eight passes, including a 34-yard scoring strike to Dwight Jones to cap the game’s opening drive. He hit on his last 14 to tie a school record for most consecutive completions in a game and ended with a 21-yard TD toss to Jones midway through the fourth.
Renner also set the ACC record for highest single-game completion percentage (95.7) with at least 20 attempts and finished just shy of the NCAA mark (95.8 percent) set by Tennessee’s Tee Martin against South Carolina in 1998. He also had a touchdown on a sneak early in the fourth, a successful start to replacing Yates.
“I know it’s the whole offense, but I’m really proud of Bryn because I know what type of guy he is — real competitive and I know what he does in practice,” linebacker Kevin Reddick said. “Sometimes he kind of gets out of control. But this game, he just took it all under his wings and relaxed.”
A pair of running backs who missed last season certainly made helped, too.
Redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard suffered a knee injury in his third day of practice, while Ryan Houston opted to redshirt after being cleared to return at midseason amid the NCAA probe. While Houston ran for 59 yards and a TD on 16 carries, Bernard showed impressive burst and the patience to let his blocks develop. He had a 12-yard TD run on his second carry before finishing with 64 yards and two scores on just nine carries.
Justin Thorpe threw for 152 yards and a touchdown for the Dukes in his return from a knee injury in last year’s opener that sidelined him the rest of the year. But the Dukes managed 211 total yards and never threatened to repeat last season’s upset at Virginia Tech.
“The overwhelming thing about the game was how they manhandled us,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. “They just gashed us. I don’t know if someone’s gashed us that bad in 10 years.”