Looking back at it, UNC really should’ve beaten Cal. The Tar Heels held a lead going into the fourth quarter and, with Chazz Surratt dealing and the rushing attack having their way, they showed no signs of letting up. All it took were a few busted assignments on defense to practically hand the Golden Bears the victory, despite the marvelous performances by freshmen Surratt and running back Michael Carter.
The past Saturday, UNC again found itself leading in the fourth, but this time against #17 Louisville and Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. The result was the same: Jackson broke containment a handful of times, the maligned secondary again left receivers uncovered, and Louisville ended up winning comfortably.
See the pattern here? UNC, for whatever reason, hasn’t finished out games in 2017. There’s still enough time for improvement, but it’s going to be a long, long season if UNC can’t buck that trend, and fast. Another poor finish against Old Dominion would send UNC to an abysmal 0-3, with a better-than-advertised Duke team coming to Chapel Hill the next week. That simply cannot happen.
So what’s up? Ultimately, it’s hard to say exactly, but keep in mind that UNC has a lot of new faces on both offense and defense. The blame for the 0-2 start lies largely on the defense—as is the case with Larry Fedora teams, UNC has had no real issues scoring so far—and while they return more than the offense does, they are still laden with freshmen and bench players who now find themselves starting. They’re finding themselves in important situations in big time games that they’ve never found themselves in before. There’s a learning curve there that they’re struggling mightily with.
With that being said, the group regressed as a whole—but that’s not to say they aren’t capable of making stops. They did a good job of bottling up Lamar Jackson’s run in the first half (he had just 22 rushing yards at halftime, yet finished 149 rushing yards total). They held Cal to just 3.0 rushing yards per attempt before being outscored by eight in the fourth quarter. They have the ability, but things keep on falling apart in the fourth quarter.
It could be an issue of fatigue, especially in the secondary, a group that has been abused by opposing receivers in 2017. But with a coach that demands so much physically from players, that’s doubtful. Instead, it might just be a matter of focus. A corner leaving his man to rush the quarterback, giving that receiver an easy path to the end zone (this happened against Cal) is just a silly play. So is Jalen Dalton blatantly targeting Cal quarterback Ross Bowers for no reason other than Dalton’s urge to lay him out.
This defense has played undisciplined this year, and it’s shown by these blown fourth quarter leads. They need to step up. It’s the coaching staff’s job to get their players ready to play, and not just until halftime or midway through the fourth quarter—they need to get their players focused for the full sixty minutes. You better believe that UNC’s opponents will be.
For however disheartening these past two games have been, UNC could easily be sitting pretty at 2-0 right now. They’ve shown that they have the ability to compete with Louisville, one of the best teams in the conference. Now they’ll go on the road to face Old Dominion, a team you can read all about here. They’ll get their best shot out of the Monarchs. If they can’t keep their full focus in Kenan, who knows what might happen on the road? They can’t afford a loss—an 0-3 start would seriously jeopardize their chances at a bowl game. We’ll see how it all plays out on Saturday at 3:30.