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UNC Football: Week 1 Highs and Lows

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An optimist’s guide to UNC football after a season-opening loss.

NCAA Football: California at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re reading this, then you made it to Monday. Congrats. You’ve survived another UNC loss against a Power 5 opponent in a season opener. Amid the frustration, recovering from the afternoon heat, and sulking because we don’t quite have the NFL to take away our pain on Sundays, this is an impressive feat.

Today, we at Tar Heel Blog continue our post-game coverage. If you haven’t already, check out our positional grades, player of the game, twitter recap, three things we learned, and Tar Heel Hangover. If you’re all caught up, peruse below as we look at some of the highs and lows of this past Saturday. I promise there were more positives to be found after taking 48 hours to cool off.

Highs

The Running Game

Justifiably, Michael Carter received most of the attention after a magnificent debut in Carolina blue. Toting the rock 11 times for 97 yards and 2 touchdowns, Carter gave UNC fans a glimpse of his elusiveness and acceleration. Most notably, his 47-yard gain that set up his first touchdown of the day was reminiscent of T.J. Logan and Giovani Bernard in previous years.

However, Chazz Surratt and Jordan Brown weren’t too shabby themselves. Both averaged over four yards per carry on a combined 29 carries. For Surratt, that kind of dual-threat ability will be crucial as the passing game teeters between respectable and abominable in the early parts of the season. In Brown’s case, he seemed to provide a little more power out of the backfield and maintained a consistency both running and receiving (nine receptions).

Last year, the Heels only averaged 145.85 yards a game on the ground with a senior and two juniors in the backfield. On Saturday, a freshman, redshirt freshman, and sophomore gained 214 yards against a Power 5 opponent.

Balanced play calling

If you want to complain about a few situational play calls throughout the game, go ahead. I get it. Just don’t complain about a one-sided affair on offense. The Heels had 44 pass attempts to 45 rushing attempts. Sure, some of those runs were broken plays or QB scrambles, but that’s still a commendable effort to keep all facets of the game involved. That has not always been the case (like last year’s 33 attempts…. against Virginia Tech…in a hurricane).

That emphasis on balancing the offense led having possession for 29:47. Some of that time can be credited to the total amount of possessions instead of multiple long drives. Plus, that ToP is likely to be an anomaly in a Larry Fedora offense, as his UNC teams have hovered around 25:00 of average possession. If the defense proves that yesterday was not a fluke, a more balanced offense (or heavier ground attack) will take on greater meaning.

Most importantly, the offense, though erratic, still put up enough points to win – and they did while running 89 plays in just under 30 minutes of having the ball.

Interceptions

After one week, the Heels already have more interceptions than all last season. Using this as a highlight is low-hanging fruit, but I have reasons! On a day that the secondary struggled, both interceptions came in the middle of the field on short to medium routes. I’m hesitant to say anything pleasant about pass coverage, but seeing the interceptions in that part of the field is something to build on. Especially after it seemed like Andre Smith dropped about 45 opportunities last year.

Lows

Pass Coverage

I don’t want to JUST single out the entire secondary for an overall abysmal day. Some of their struggles can be attributed to the defensive line and their inability to close with and destroy the quarterback. With that out of the way, let’s be clear. The secondary wilted worse than a three-day old arugula salad.

How bad were they? Last season, 90 passes went for a 10+ yards (6.9 a game). Only 34 passes gained more than 20+ yards (2.6 a game). On Saturday, they allowed 12 passing plays of 10+ yards. Six of those went for gains of 20+. Against a redshirt sophomore quarterback making his first start.

These weren’t dinks and dunks and death by a thousand paper cuts. North Carolina was gashed across the throat with a serrated blade throughout the afternoon. Wheel routes, blown coverages, and missed tackles once again proved problematic.

Perhaps it was a fluke. Or maybe the secondary has benefitted from never really being tested the past few years as teams have feasted against the Heels on the ground?

Jalen Dalton

Look. I think the targeting rule is an utterly stupid rule and it seems that its enforcement is solely dependent on what side of the bed the referee woke up on that day. The rule is written in a way that allows way too much interpretation, and receives zero consistency across the officiating spectrum. In the name of safety, I’ll concede it should be called if a player literally launches himself at an opponent’s head or intentionally tries to maim another player. So, I personally believe that Jalen Dalton should be playing next week instead of missing the first half of the Louisville game.

That being said, Jalen Dalton should have been nowhere near the Cal QB, Ross Bowers, on that 3rd and 12 before the end of the first half. Just as we plead for basketball players to understand time and score in close games, the same must be expected of football players. Even if you were to believe he couldn’t have halted his momentum, he certainly could have thrown his hands in the air in an attempt to persuade the ref that he tried to stop. At a minimum, Dalton never should have had his helmet in front of the rest of his body. Nor should he have been in the vicinity of Bowers’ head.

The rules about roughing quarterbacks and helmet-to-helmet to hits have been in existence as long as Dalton has been wearing a UNC uniform. It was a stupid, childish, immature play that we expect upperclassmen to avoid. While I refuse to blame the ensuing California TD solely on Dalton, he unquestionably prevented the UNC offense from the opportunity to gain a three-possession lead.

3rd and 4th down defense

I have nothing new to add to this that you haven’t already read somewhere else.
-Dalton’s penalty was on 3rd down.
-Cal’s third touchdown in the third quarter was on third down.
-On Cal’s fourth scoring drive, they converted 4th and 1. Twice.
-On Cal’s final scoring drive, they converted on 3rd and 16, 3rd and 6, and 3rd and goal.

That’s five 3rd down conversions and two 4th down conversions that directly led to 28 points. Cal converted eight 3rd downs all day.

Do with that what you will.

Quarterback Musical Chairs

Pick one. Let him find a rhythm. Support him. Give the team someone to follow. Even a bad decision is better than indecision. You can correct a bad decision, but not while you’re not making any decisions.