A game like Thursday night's disappointing UNC loss puts the optimism meter to a real test.
On the one hand, there are so many good things to point to, particularly areas of such concern in 2014 that showed marked improvement in the season opener. On the other hand, this is just about as stinging of a loss as has occurred under Larry Fedora only because Carolina lost the game for all the wrong reasons.
Make no mistake, there have been a number of frustrating, near-miss losses over the past three seasons. Wake Forest in 2012. Miami in the Zero Dark Thursday gut-wrencher in 2013. Notre Dame in 2014. But Thursday night, in a season opener in which UNC looked like the better team as compared to South Carolina for most of the evening, may be the most puzzling and one of the most disappointing.
If you had told a UNC fan that the Tar Heels would hold the Gamecocks under 400 yards of total offense and only 17 points, they would have taken it in a heartbeat. The problem is, no one would have thought that a Carolina offense that routinely dropped 30+ points a year ago and was returning 10 starters could only muster a single touchdown. But it happened and UNC is once again left to wonder what might have been had they taken the game that SCAR was trying to give them.
Against that depressing backdrop, here is this week's Good, Bad, and Ugly Report:
Elijah Hood: The sophomore running back had a career-high 138 yards on only 12 carries. He was chewing up yards at will and the only question is why he didn't carry the ball more. If UNC can actually establish a real running game for the first time since Gio Bernard left, it should help open up the entire offense.
Nick Weiler: Weiler was 2-2 on field goal attempts, making from 38 and 47 yards. Again it cannot be overstated how awful the Heels were in the kicking game the past two years. UNC only made six field goals last year and the longest was from 30, so Weiler is way ahead of last season's pace. It seemed so out of place after the last two years to think a field goal was even an option.
Bug Howard: The junior wide receiver had career highs in receptions and yards and was a handful to tackle.
The Defense: Well what do you know? UNC looked like a decent college football defense on Thursday night. While some of the past few seasons' bugaboos like some awful tackling flared up, for the most part it appears Gene Chizik and the new defensive staff have worked a miracle and made last season's historically bad defense look respectable. Granted SCAR had a quarterback in his first college start and ran a pretty vanilla package but save for the long TD run (which was less a matter of UNC's ineptitude and more a matter of simply being the absolutely perfect play call leading to a perfect storm) the defense looked OK. And given how dreadful UNC was on defense last year, being just OK is a 100% improvement. And, let's not forget the huge four-down stop that allowed the Heels to move into a position to win the game.
Our Blue: UNC's redesigned uniforms were sharp and crisp and the hideous black is gone. Now get off my lawn.
Offensive line: This is an average grade. On the one hand, the O-line blocked well enough to gain over 200 yards on the ground., but on the other hand gave up four sacks (though to be fair, Marquise Williams bears some responsibility on those). Also in a bizarre turn of events, UNC was whistled for six penalties, all of which were on the offensive line and all of which were mental or procedural: four false starts, a snap infraction, and an illegal formation call for not being on the line of scrimmage. Then again there were no holding calls, so you take what you can get.
Time of possession: There was a great tweet on this Thursday night from friend of the blog James Curle:
Time of possession doesn't matter until time of possession matters.— James Curle (@JamesCurle) September 4, 2015
Time of possession doesn't mean a whole lot for a Larry Fedora team except when the offense can't sustain drives and a thin defense has to go back out on the field, especially on a humid night where cramps were the order of the day. Besides it was part of SCAR's strategy to keep the ball out of UNC's offense's hands, and in doing so, not only did they possess the ball 11 minutes longer than Carolina, they controlled the tempo and UNC only had 63 offensive plays. That is far below the preferred pace of UNC's offense and was certainly a factor in the game.
Marquise Williams: There is no other word to describe the debut of the 5th-year senior than disappointing. Williams was 19-31 through the air for 232 yards and a touchdown, which by itself wasn't too bad. He also had 10 rushes for only 9 yards, which is dreadful given the usual Williams standards. But the worst part was that, for the most part, Williams was not sharp, made poor decisions, and looked pretty bad throwing the ball. He took two sacks when he should have scrambled, and the missed routes and poorly-thrown balls were glaring.
Oh, and there were the three crushing interceptions. In the red zone. Two of them in the end zone after UNC had 1st-and-goal. And both end zone interceptions were poorly-thrown balls on the same play, thrown to the same receiver (Singleton) in the same location (back middle of the end zone) and intercepted by the same player from the same location. Granted Williams missed spring practice recovering from a hip injury but this version of Bad Quise is what ended the season last year and it is less than optimal to see that Bad Quise came back for the opener. UNC will need more from a guy who was in the All-ACC discussion for much of the season last year.
Offensive Play-Calling: I am always hesitant to criticize coaching because after 16 years of coaching high school and college myself, I recognize the coaches know better than fans who has done what in practice, what group is working well, what the scouting report says about matchups, etc. I also recognize that I have won exactly the same number of college football games as Larry Fedora's housecat, but WHAT THE HECK WERE WE WATCHING ON THURSDAY? As Paul pointed out, other than the Ryan Switzer end-around on the first play of the game, was there anything particularly Fedora-esque about the play-calling? The offense was pretty conservative and at times predictable.
And of course there was the play selection and personnel package at the 1st-and-goal late in the 4th quarter with a chance to win the ball game. Elijah Hood has been trucking people the whole game, especially on that drive, and yet he comes out on 1st and 2nd downs. On 1st down, T.J. Logan gets the carry. Logan, not Hood, who is not even in the game. After Williams gets the ball down to the 3 and clearly in a 4-down situation, UNC chooses to pass and Williams takes an ill-advised sack. On 4th down, SCAR dropped 8 into coverage on a short field and the Williams interception sealed Carolina's fate.
If that goal-line possession seemed like deja vu, you were right - it was the same play-calling sequence as Carolina's first 1st-and-goal possession in the 1st quarter that also ended in an interception. On 1st down, Hood ran off tackle, 2nd was a Quise keeper, and 3rd was the picked-off pass. The difference is the 3rd down play in the 4th quarter was from the 3, and I'm sure Pete Carroll has an idea about what you do in that situation. Fedora offered a weak defense of Hood not getting touches in the red zone by saying UNC was behind the sticks (meaning in more passing than running situations) but 3rd and goal at the 3 in a 4-down situation is NOT behind the sticks.
So once more UNC is left asking what might have been had they been able to close out a quality opponent on a big stage. Let's be clear though - SCAR is not a particularly good team but this is the kind of game UNC has to win when your program is trying to turn the corner. Yet, to put the optimism meter to the test again, there were plenty of positives to take away from the game. The three biggest questions from last season: a consistent running game, the sieve defense, and atrocious place-kicking, seem to be much improved. Also the next three games are against two FCS teams and an Illinois team that fired its head coach two weeks ago, so the Heels will have plenty of time to get the kinks straightened out before the schedule gets hopping in October.