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UNC 17, Cal 24: Fourth quarter rally makes things seem closer than they appear

The Tar Heels mostly struggled in Berkeley, despite a fourth quarter rally that nearly got them back into the game

North Carolina v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

A team that throws four interceptions (including one pick six), commits over 100 yards of penalties, goes 4-17 on third down, and possesses the ball for just 24 minutes probably shouldn’t be down just a touchdown with under two minutes left. Yet somehow, UNC was.

After basically three whole quarters of horrendous offense, the Tar Heels were still alive. That was thanks mostly to a combination of a good defensive game, and Cal not being quite good enough to step on Carolina’s throat.

After a couple of fourth quarter touchdowns, UNC had a chance to recover an onside kick and get the ball back down just seven points with just over a minute left. They initially recovered it, before it was overturned on an illegal blocking call, because Larry Fedora has some weird onside kick curse on him. Cal recovered the second attempt, and was able to kneel out the clock and seal a 24-17 win.

However, don’t let the final score and the relative closeness of the final stats fool you. This was an ugly game for North Carolina.

Going three and out on their first drive of the game obviously isn’t a good thing. However, it’s also not always a sign of things to come. Against Cal, it very much was a sign of things to come for UNC.

Six of the Tar Heels’ 10 drives in the first half ended on punts after just three plays. Three more ended with Nathan Elliott interceptions, and the final one was stopped because of the end of the first half. UNC did not get a first down until there were under seven minutes left in the second quarter, and the very next play was one of those aforementioned interceptions.

With that happening on one side of the ball, the defense was always going to be up against it. They played well, but as happened so many times last season, they could only do so much. Eventually, Cal broke through a couple times, and the game was seemingly put to bed in the third quarter.

Of course, then everything mentioned before in the fourth quarter happened, and the game only ends in a seven-point margin. The final score makes things seem a bit rosier than they actually were.

Not counting the Larry Fedora and suspension stuff, the main story coming into the season as far as on the field things go was probably the quarterback. While the Chazz Surratt suspension finalized things, it appeared like Elliott was going to win the job anyway. If that’s the case, it doesn’t seem great for UNC. He went 15-35 for 137 yards and one touchdown, and four interceptions. It wasn’t pretty.

Elliott actually finished as the Tar Heels’ leading rusher, running for 58 yards on 10 carries. Antonio Williams didn’t have the best UNC debut, but it’s hard to put all of that on him, as the offensive line didn’t have a great day either. Jordon Brown ended up going for over five yards a carry, but he was the back for a lot of the fourth quarter after Cal had taken their foot off the gas.

Not surprisingly, Anthony Ratliff-Williams had the lone touchdown catch for Carolina.

As mentioned, the defense did their job. Cal went for just 279 total yards. Rushing defense has often been the problem for the Tar Heels, but the Golden Bears ran for just 3.3 yards per carry. Cal ended up using three different quarterbacks in the game, as Ross Bowers wasn’t especially effective.

This extends UNC’s losing streak in openers to four consecutive years. If there’s any consolation to be taken from the game, it’s that the Tar Heels have ended up being better than they looked in the season opener in most of those years. Of course, the exception to that is last season, so who knows what the deal is.

If the Tar Heels don’t look better against East Carolina next week, things are not going to be pretty in 2018.