Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a Larry Fedora coached team enters the season playing a Power 5 opponent with fans excited about the possibilities before the season, only to see that team waste opportunities and go down in defeat.
UNC has opened with a P5 opponent four times under Larry Fedora (SC in ‘13 and ‘15, UGA in ‘16, Cal this year), and each year has ended in a loss. What’s the definition of insanity again?
So what did we learn with this year’s version of the P5 Opening Loss?
This QB battle isn’t Williams/Trubisky
Going back to the Butch Davis era, UNC has had a pretty danged good leader under center. TJ Yates, Bryn Renner, Marquise Williams, Mitch Trubisky: each held the job for multiple seasons, and waited their turn with multiple years in their system to where there weren’t so many stumbles when they took over.
The honest plan for Fedora was to keep that going, with this supposedly being Trubisky’s senior season to break in some new receivers. Fortunately for him, he did so well that he was drafted 2nd overall in the NFL, but it created a hole in the plan. That hole was on full display Saturday.
The battle through camp wasn’t against two QB’s who could step up and lead their team, but two QB’s that are still raw and learning the system in their own way. Brandon Harris displayed why he fell out of favor at LSU, and Chazz Surratt displayed flashes of ability but the coaches clearly didn’t want him to pass, as 42 of Surratt’s 160 yards came during that last series when the issue was already decided.
Harris threw more, but shot Carolina in the foot with two interceptions, both at key times. The offense ran better with Surratt, so it’s fair to say he’s “won” the competition, but more by default. If the coaching staff agrees, expect the Redshirt Freshman to take the bulk of snaps and take his lumps this year.
The defense is still inconsistent at best
You can’t let a sophomore quarterback get 363 yards passing and 4 touchdowns making his first start. The line, thought to be a great strength for UNC, continued their inability to make a sack and Ross Bowers consistently made them pay. The secondary missed their assignments when Bowers was flushed from the pocket, including the 67-yarder that completely turned the tide of the game going into halftime.
That touchdown came the next play after the outright vicious hit on Bowers by Jalen Dalton. There’s a reason that type of hit is being outlawed, and while it was frustrating to see the refs go from roughing the passer to a targeting call on review, you can’t argue with the decision. It’s also Dalton’s 2nd ejection in his last three games (he was tossed for his part in the brawl against NC State). The defense couldn’t recover from that call, as Cal effectively outscored UNC 28-7 for the rest of the game.
There are bright spots-the rushing defense only gave up 106 yards total on 35 rushes, and Andre Smith announced his intent for All-ACC with 10 tackles and an interception, one of two they got on the day, doubling their total from last year. Overall, though, with multiple 3rd and longs and 4th down conversions, the defense didn’t give the offense a chance to grow.
Fedora treats a non-ACC opener as the preseason
After four of these, we should have known this by now, but after Saturday it is blatantly obvious that if UNC is to get a win in an opening game that doesn’t involve an ACC team, it’s a happy coincidence. The offense wasn’t that complicated, the quarterbacks were continuously rotated which didn’t allow one to get into a full rhythm, and the one real shining star on offense, Michael Carter, got only two touches in the 2nd half.
I hinted at this in my three things to watch column last week, in that with Louisville on the schedule for the week, and the first goal to be to win the ACC Costal, Fedora wanted to make Petrino’s job tougher. It’s also a reason to take a step back and breathe before getting too bent out of shape over this one. Despite their embarrassing losses the first three times, Fedora has gotten each of those teams into a bowl game. Don’t forget 2013 started with losses in 5 of 6 prior to recovering and winning 6 of their last 7, including the Belk Bowl.
Saturday gave Fedora an idea in real game action what he had, and it’s why he played that last minute of the 4th quarter seriously with Surratt on the field, taking that last timeout with the issue decided. Bowers’ success gives the defense a real idea what they are up against with Lamar Jackson in Louisville, and Fedora now knows how his team reacts to actual game pressure.
All of this is to say: yes, be frustrated that they lost yet again to a P5 opponent in an opener. Be frustrated that Fedora stubbornly wouldn’t let the best running back get touches, or the quarterbacks continued to be rotated even though it was clear who ran the offense better.
But remember that this Saturday is a new weekend. With Louisville not looking that dominant in a win against Purdue, a victory against them gets you to 1-0 in the ACC, with momentum going into the rest of the season. On the flip side, if this team plays this Saturday like they did this past one?
Well...then maybe it’s time to wonder whether the roof might be too high of a ceiling for this squad.