The senior quarterback's toughness was on display in the loss to Wisconsin.

Sept. 20, 2005

by David Droschak,

CHAPEL HILL - What attracted John Bunting to Matt Baker in high school? Most think it was Baker's arm or his intelligence. But the one intangible Bunting kept seeing in Baker was his toughness, something the senior quarterback displayed this past weekend when he took a pounding in a 14-5 loss to Wisconsin.

Baker left the game holding his ribs and limping on a bum ankle, his body aching and his pride hurt. But he'll be back for more this Saturday at arch-rival N.C. State.

Anyone who knows Baker or has been around him for any length of time knows full well he won't be backing down in Raleigh against one of the ACC's best defenses, a unit that will likely apply more pressure on the UNC pocket than last Saturday.

Baker has waited too long for this opportunity to back down now.

"He's tougher than nails," Bunting said of his QB, who is listed at 100 percent for practice this week but can't be feeling close to that physically. "I talked with him and the captains like I do every Monday and he had a big smile on his face. I was giving him a hard time, telling him I'm going to put some armor on him. He's a tough kid. He's anxious to get back into the thick of it."

Bunting recalls watching Baker stand tall in the pocket against the rush numerous times at Brother Rice High School in Michigan.

"He said he had never been hit like the other night and I said, `Yes you have, I saw you in high school.' That's one of the reasons I was attracted to him. He was a tough lacrosse player and a tough dud. I saw him throwing the football with people around him. There is no fear in that kid."

Baker was wearing a protective vest for his ribs the other night, but still got bruised by Wisconsin's heavy rush.

"We've got a new one coming for him. We're getting him a better one," Bunting joked when a reporter asked if Baker has worn out his flak jacket. Baker's first two starts have been above average, but the offense has bogged down around him and, as one of the team leaders, he's taken most of the blame, fairly or unfairly.

"The only place that I can point the finger is at me," Baker said. "We've got to be able to run the game better, make better decisions, make better calls, get people lined up in the right place. I'll take the majority of the heat. That's how it works."

Baker may not have mastered the finer points of the offense just yet, but he's mastered the blame game, and when an offense struggles in football, he knows the blame always shifts to the quarterback.

In this case, it's unfair.

The offensive line, with four seniors, was supposed to be a strong suit of this team. However, that unit hasn't lived up to its billing so far, either in run blocking or pass protection.

Then there is the running game, or lack there of. With starter Ronnie McGill still sidelined with an injury until at least mid-October, that part of Carolina's attack has struggled through two opening losses. Averaging about two yards a carry isn't good in any league, let alone the tough ACC.

"Being able to run on first down gives you a tremendous advantage," Bunting said.

The coach believes his running game took, in his words, "a baby step" last weekend against Wisconsin. He now wants to see even more improvement from Barrington Edwards and Cooter Arnold on Saturday. The two will have to start breaking a run or two for big yardage or Baker will begin to see more and more blitzing linebackers in his face.

Nobody in Carolina Blue wants to see that scenario develop.

Bunting likes the test awaiting his offense in Raleigh, and has challenged his offensive line to play better, with a No. 1 goal of protecting Baker. "You're playing against speed and power," Bunting said. "But the speed off the edges is what really can put anxiety into an offensive lineman. So, we've got to work extremely hard this week on film and then they've got to go out there and play every play.

"Guess what? They are going to get beat on occasion, but they're got to go on to the next play. They can't dwell on it. You better not be thinking about the last play because if you are you may have some real trouble lining up to play the next one."

Baker, for one, is ready to line up for the next play.

David Droschak is the former sports editor for the North Carolina bureaus of the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering organization in the world. In 2003, Droschak was named the North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year. He currently works in public relations at Robbins & Associates International, based in Cary.