The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday December 2nd

Poor Punting Performance Results in Special Teams Controversy

No, no, not quarterback.

Punter.

The Tar Heels sunk to new lows Saturday in their 59-7 loss to Maryland at Kenan Stadium, turning in such a desultory performance that the shoddy play of punter John Lafferty and a slightly better showing by his backup, Paul Roberts, actually stood out as one of the major subplots of the game.

Lafferty struggled mightily with his punts before UNC coach John Bunting finally yanked him from the game after the first half.

On his first attempt, Lafferty booted a 51-yarder that UNC's gunners nearly downed inside the 5-yard line but was ruled a touch back. Then things fell apart.

He averaged 27.3 yards on his next three kicks, one of which -- a 30-yarder -- was returned 77 yards for a touchdown. The other two enabled the Terrapins' offense to begin drives on the UNC 44 and at midfield, leading to 10 points in a first half that decided the game's outcome.

After a strong week of practice, Lafferty was at a loss to explain why he couldn't execute against the Terps.

"It was just a rough day," he said. "One thing throws off your drop and it makes it tough to get off your ball."

Worst of all in the eyes of the UNC coaches was Lafferty's inability to kick away from dangerous Terp return man Steve Suter, who entered the game as the ACC's leading punt returner with a 13.8-yard average and three touchdowns, the latter a conference record.

Suter made Lafferty pay late in the second quarter when he corralled Lafferty's 30-yard offering at the Maryland 23, juked to the left sideline, tore downfield -- virtually untouched -- and scampered into the end zone for what appeared to be his fourth TD of the season, an NCAA record-tying mark.

But three penalty flags were thrown during Suter's jaunt. Surely at least one penalty would be on the Terps and the touchdown would be called back, the UNC coaches and players -- even Suter himself -- assumed.

"Everyone was getting in my face," Suter said, "and I was like, 'Hold on for a second, let me catch my breath, I'm about to try and do this again because I know they're going to re-kick it."

Then again, maybe not. Halo violation, illegal procedure, block in the back. All three penalties were on UNC.

Bunting called Suter's TD return the "backbreaker" for the Tar Heels. Combined with the rest of his subpar day -- and depending, of course, on his performance in future games -- Lafferty might soon be calling it the play that cost him his starting job.

Although he entered the game having punted only once this season, Roberts, a sophomore walk-on who is listed as a defensive back in UNC's media guide, filled in admirably if not stunningly for Lafferty, averaging 41.8 yards on four punts.

"We made a change because John just wasn't hitting them like he normally does," said Bunting, who described Roberts as possessing a "big-league leg." "It was very important in this game to angle that ball and either get it out of bounds or get it close to the boundary."

Bunting voiced his support for Lafferty, but left open the possibility that there could be competition for his starting position.

Lafferty, meanwhile, took a philosophical approach to his performance Saturday and what might be in store for him down the road.

"You're going to have bad days; you're going to have a bad kick every once in a while," he said. "You've got to move on. You can't think about the last kick. I've been kicking real well in practice lately. It just has to carry over to the game."

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.

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