The time has come. Camps are coming to a close and opening weekend football is on the horizon. This week, the Tar Heels bring the California Golden Bears into Kenan Stadium. In what could potentially be a soggy game, the Tar Heels look to get a quick start to show that the offensive worries are all for naught. However, they do have a dark cloud of opening day woes hanging over their heads.
California Golden Bears
A recently released depth chart shows that Cal has named Ross Bowers as the starting quarterback. Coach Wilcox had glowing reviews of his newly-named starter saying:
“Ross can throw the football. He spins it really well. He’s an athletic guy who can make some things happen when it’s not perfect. He kind of has that mentality about him, to find a way. He can throw from different arm angles. He can get out of trouble and make a play on the run.”
The Bears’ offense will rely on running back Tre Watson to shoulder most of the workload as Bowers gets on the same page as his receivers. This may take some time as Cal has three new starters starters on the offensive line.
The defense, on the other hand, looks to rebound from a horrible 2016 campaign. California brings in new coach, Justin Wilcox, from his position as defensive coordinator at Wisconsin. Wilcox looks to turn around a defense that finished last in total defense and next-to-last in scoring defense last season. Saturday will be the first in-game look at the freshly installed 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter and Cal hopes to get after North Carolina’s quarterback (whomever that may be). Look for California to try to rush the quarterback and force miscues between Carolina’s yet-to-be-named quarterback and remade receiving corps.
Without a starting quarterback named, the focus will be on the receivers and the running backs. One can’t help but notice, however, that Auburn transfer Stanton Truitt was left off of the opening day depth chart, most likely due to injury. That makes way for a young running back duo of Jordon Brown and Michael Carter. Things were mainly as predicted for the wideouts and tight ends as Austin Proehl, Thomas Jackson, and Brandon Fritts will lead those units. Expect them to be heavily targeted from any UNC quarterback. How much time the quarterback has will be an enigma in itself as the offensive line will try to settle into a rotation. Khaliel Rodgers is back, but not starting. Jared Cohen is gone, again, while Bentley Spain and Tommy Hatton are dealing with injuries.
Cal’s rush defense could have some early success stopping the run and forcing the Heels to make plays through the air. That could spell danger for a unit that is trying to come into it’s own playing against a defense that wants to make a statement to help squash memories of 2016.
Since Cal’s offense is known for airing it out, UNC’s defense will look to pressure Bowers into making mistakes. Returning linebackers Andre Smith, Cayson Collins, and Cole Holcomb, along with defensive linemen Tyler Powell, Malik Carney, and Dajaun Drennon (also adding RS-Freshman Tomon Fox to the mix) will make North Carolina’s front seven a group capable of wreaking havoc against Cal’s inexperienced offensive line. Look for that to open big play opportunities for M.J. Stewart, Donnie Miles, and the rest of the Carolina secondary. Also look for Carolina to assert their dominance in stopping the run game to change the narrative that has followed them for a few seasons.
Both Carolina and California have something similar to prove on both sides of the ball. Carolina needs to show that its offense is a cohesive unit and can function in the permanent absence of Mitch Trubisky, Ryan Switzer, and Elijah Hood. Cal’s offense will try to become one unit under new starter Ross Bowers and a new-look offensive line. Carolina’s defensive squad will look to stop the run, then put all kinds of pressure on Cal’s quarterback and forcing him to make mistakes. Cal’s defense looks to rebound from a year-to-forget and keep Carolina’s offense out of the end zone.
This could go any number of ways, but Carolina’s offense will get a fast start while the defense will be too much for Cal’s offensive line. Carolina will be able to put points on the board as Cal’s defense will struggle in their debut of the 3-4 scheme. Austin Proehl will eclipse a 100-yard receiving game and Jordon Brown and Michael Carter will have a nice day, collectively. Carolina’s defense will struggle early on, but the front seven will get pressure on the quarterback and eventually force two turnovers; one interception (we won’t have to wait until week nine this season) and one fumble recovery.
The Tar Heels will win their first opening day game against a Power Five opponent since 1997 by a score of 35-21.