Sometimes UNC football can feel a bit like living in Groundhog Day.
Once again, a two-quarterback offense resulted in neither quarterback ever being able to find a rhythm. Once again, a running back who lit up the defense in the first half was frozen out of the second. And once again, UNC gave away a chance to win the game by allowing too many long third down conversions. Let’s see how each position group did against the California Golden Bears.
BRANDON HARRIS: 3/10. I’m grading the quarterbacks separately because of the significant gulf in how they played. Harris, as a graduate transfer, looked more like a true freshman out there. He turned the ball over twice, connected on only seven passes for 60 yards, and one of his interceptions came late in the first half in Cal territory when UNC was working to get in field goal range.
Expectations may have been unfairly high for Harris, and Fedora swapping him and Surratt at will didn’t do much to help him get in a rhythm, but instead of showing why he should start for UNC, he showed why he lost his starting job at LSU.
CHAZZ SURRATT: 6.5/10. Based on Saturday's game, Surratt should be the starter for the rest of the year. He has several years at North Carolina ahead of him, and he needs to build experience, because he showed he has what it takes to succeed. Some of his passes sailed on him, but he didn’t turn the ball over, and he even connected with Thomas Jackson for a nice touchdown.
He also led the team in carries with 16, rushing for 66 yards as well as a meaningless touchdown while time expired where he escaped being tackled to punch it in. He is unpolished, but that is all the more reason for him to get more experience. That seems to be the case, as he led every drive but one in the second half.
RUNNING BACKS: 7/10. Michael Carter is the real deal, which makes the fact that he only had two carries in the second half even more inexplicable. The true freshman ran eleven times for 94 yards and 8.5 yards per carry, including two touchdowns.
Jordon Brown got most of the snaps in the second half, though, and although he had some decent plays, Fedora yet again took the ball out of the hands of the running back who was actually making plays. UNC has something special in Carter. You have to wonder if they realize that.
WIDE RECEIVERS: 6/10. There were no egregious drops, but no one aside from Austin Proehl (who was very obviously one of the few returning starters from last year) and Thomas Jackson (who made a very nice catch for UNC’s only passing touchdown) really did anything to stand out. Several passes were too high for them to catch, however, and it remains to be seen whether or not the position group will perform better if they receive consistent play from the quarterback position.
TIGHT ENDS: 4/10. Not much to say here. Brandon Fritts and Carl Tucker were the only two tight ends who caught any passes, each of them catching two for 17 and 13 yards, respectively.
OFFENSIVE LINE: 5.5/10. They allowed two sacks and four hurries in the passing game, and the running stats speak for themselves, as UNC broke the 200-yard mark in rushing. (They also broke 200 yards in passing. Pause as Larry Fedora sheds a single, perfectly balanced tear. Unpause.) However, collapsing pockets forced both Harris and Surratt to scramble on multiple occasions, and a couple of penalties nullified some otherwise fine plays.
DEFENSIVE LINE: 2/10. Only one sack, only three hurries, and the play that swung the game. I can’t possibly defend the hit Jalen Dalton made on a quarterback that had just unloaded the ball, and he was deservedly ejected for targeting after a replay review. It changed the game immediately.
It was 3rd in 12 deep in Cal territory, and it would have been 4th down if not for that penalty. Cal scored at the end of the drive, and UNC went into halftime up only three instead of 10.
LINEBACKERS: 7/10. North Carolina's linebackers were the team's best defensive performers out of default. However, they didn’t force much pressure when asked, and when called upon in pass coverage, some linebackers ended up getting a bit singed.
SECONDARY: 3.5/10. Don’t let those two interceptions fool you. What should have been the strongest position group on defense ended up getting absolutely lit up by a true freshman starting his first game ever.
Touchdowns of 67 and 54 yards, four passing touchdowns overall, and over 350 passing yards allowed is downright porous. Andre Smith and Donnie Miles deserve every bit of credit for their interceptions, each of which was converted into a UNC touchdown. But there’s not much else here to be proud of.
SPECIAL TEAMS: 6/10. We thought we had a punt-off brewing, as the first five drives of the game all ended in punts. Tom Sheldon punted four times and averaged a touch over forty yards, which is solid. Kicker Freeman Jones converted from 39 and missed from 45. The team didn’t allow any big returns, but didn’t have any big returns either.
COACHING: 3/10. One of my fellow writers here at THB noted that Fedora in his time at UNC tends to treat the first game of the season like it's preseason. Perhaps that’s why this team tends to perform so poorly against P5 schools in the first game of the season.
Regardless, it was obvious that the two-QB system was hurting more than it was helping, and the decision to sit Carter for the second half was ridiculous. Fedora gets credit for going for it on a late 4th and short in Cal territory rather than kicking it—the correct call—even if UNC failed to convert.
REFEREES: 4/10. The zebras set a weird tone for the rest of the game when they refused to review Cal’s first touchdown, which looked like an incompletion for multiple reasons. Every review after that felt ludicrous, although they made the right decision on all of them.
They also made the right decision in ejecting Dalton, and it may be some time before Dalton suits up for UNC again. They did lose control of the game late, though, when Cal was committing defensive holding penalties to kill the game, even though it was impossible for the Heels to win.
OVERALL: 4.5/10. UNC didn’t get blown out of the water, but it was clear that this is a game they should have won. The most telling statistic is that Cal failed to score a single point off of UNC’s three turnovers, while the Tar Heels scored 14 points off of the two turnovers they forced.
Big plays, questionable coaching, and one ill-advised hit all mean that UNC will be 0-1 when they welcome Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals to Kenan next week. Here’s hoping Fedora cuts off one of the heads of that two-headed QB monster.