If you had come to me on before the game and told me UNC would hold South Carolina to 17 points I would have been ecstatic. After all this UNC offense with so much experience, a proven quarterback in Marquise Williams, wide receivers and running backs galore should be able to throw more than 17 points on the scoreboard. South Carolina's defense would be better than last season but even a 17 point defensive effort by the Tar Heels would be more than sufficient for the offense to win the game.
Naturally that's not what happened because sports.
After a year where the defense was much maligned, the Tar Heels on that side of the ball stepped up. No, the defense isn't completely fixed. There are still plenty of issues to be concerned about with Gene Chizik's unit. Missed tackles are still a problem as was stopping the run. Connor Mitch's struggles passing the ball didn't put pressure on the secondary. Still, the defense produced some stops and gave the Tar Heels a chance to get the lead back by stuffing South Carolina on 3rd and 4th down with one yard to go deep in UNC's end. The defense will still struggle this season but for this game it put UNC in a position to win.
The problem was the offense which was plagued by poor QB play, disrupted rhythm and some questionable coaching decisions.
Marquise Williams' No Good, Very Bad Day
It started well enough. The end zone interception on the first possession was less than ideal but it was only the first possession. On the next offensive series Williams went 3-4 completing passes of 40, 23 and 21, the last one for a touchdown. At halftime Williams was 10-13 for 160 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Overall it was a good half with the glaring mistake being one turnover in the red zone.
The second half didn't go as swimmingly. After halftime Williams was 9-18 for just 72 yards and two more interceptions. All three interceptions could be defined as either a bad throw or awful decision. In both end zone interceptions, Williams attempted to throw to the back of the end zone but instead of lofting the ball up tried to laser it through despite not being set to make the throw. In both instances a South Carolina defender was in prime position to pick off the pass. The other interception was after UNC moved to the SCAR 20 in the third quarter and Williams threw a slant which was easily picked off.
Aside from the interceptions, Williams had two overthrows to Ryan Switzer on quick outs to the sideline. That play is a staple of the offense and a pass Williams has thrown to Switzer before in games not to mention countless times in practice. Those miscues and Williams getting bottled up for sacks after he got uncomfortable in the pocket illustrate just how discombobulated the senior was all night.
Because Williams played at such a high level last season, this very well could have been a fluky bad game at the wrong time. South Carolina made some plays defensively but largely it felt like Williams struggles were of his own making. It stands to reason Williams will bounce back but this one will hurt for awhile.
If you've watched UNC's offense during the Larry Fedora tenure, it is clear rhythm is incredibly important to how well the offense works. Fedora wants to use pace to put pressure on the defense and part of that pace is putting a string of positive plays together. When that happens, the offense really starts to hum.
One of UNC's biggest issues in this game was the lack of offensive rhythm thanks to penalties and the failure to execute on simple plays. The aforementioned incompletions on quick out passes from Williams to Switzer were like speed bumps to the offense. UNC had six penalties over the course of the game but some of those came at inopportune moments derailing potential offensive momentum.
Simply put there was very much a "two step forward, one step back" feel to the offense. When it seemed like UNC might put together a solid drive it was undone by penalties, empty plays or turnovers. Even when UNC managed to get the offense rolling, the struggle in the red zone was real.
Alternate title: Elijah Hood had 138 yards....on just 12 carries.
That stat line is impressive in good and bad ways. Hood was a beast out there and lived up to every bit of the hype surrounding him coming out of high school. His 138 yards was the most by a Tar Heel rusher in the season open since Torn Dorn's 165 yards versus Illinois in 1987. Hood averaged 11.5 yards per carry which is patently absurd but probably not as absurd as the fact he only carried the ball 12 times. Hood's production would lead one to believe he should get the ball more but that wasn't the case.
The rotation of running backs isn't unusual under Fedora. In fact, Gio Bernard in 2012 is the only UNC rusher under Fedora to carry a significant load. Bernard averaged 18 carries per game in Fedora's first season. Since then T.J. Logan's 10 carries per game in 2013 is tops among UNC running backs. Some of that drop off is owed to Marquise Williams being an effective rusher and the other to the fact no one could produce at Gio Bernard's level.
Except Hood may be able to do just that.
In 12 carries versus South Carolina, Hood certainly proved he could do some damage even with an offensive line that was decent but not great. More than that, it's not rocket science to keep giving the ball to a player who is racking up first down distance on average which leads to questions about the use of personnel and not using Hood in crucial red zone possessions with UNC trailing 17-13.
If you watch enough football you realize there are times coaches overthink situations. Pete Carroll's decision to throw a pass on 3rd and goal at the one in the Super Bowl instead of handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch is a perfect example of this type of overthinking. Hood was running all over South Carolina's defense so common sense would dictate he should get the ball more not less. Granted there could be reasons to limit Hood's workload in the first game but that doesn't hold water when discussing UNC's final possession.
After Hood had helped the offense get into the red zone, UNC face 3rd and goal from the three. Hood was not on the field and a called pass play ended in disaster with Williams taking a five yard sack. The question is why Hood wasn't on the field to either get the ball or at least serve as decoy? Hood was arguably UNC's best player on the game side from maybe Bug Howard and with short yardage needed to take the lead, he was on the sideline while Williams took a sack.
There is a element of hindsight we get to enjoy in discussing coaching decisions. The use of Hood seems like a fairly common sense decision given how much of a beast the sophomore had been to that point. At the same time, Williams has his share of clutch moments in his UNC career. In that respect the decision to put the game in Williams' hands is fine however Hood should at least be an option and also the primary workhorse for the rushing game going forward..
UNC's offense produced 440 yards of total offense at a clip of 7.0 yards per play. That's great production with little to show for it in terms of points. In essence it wasted a great effort by the defense In all likelihood it was just one out of kilter game out of 12 for the offense. Unfortunately it came at the time when just a few more plays could have netted the Tar Heels a signature win to open the season.