Well, that was deflating. Again, UNC played a home opener that it had every chance of winning. And again, the offense just didn’t come to play. Unlike previous iterations of this UNC staple, though, the blame can be reduced to just a couple of areas instead of just a general malaise infecting the team. Let’s break it down.
(I’m changing my grading system from 1-10 to A-F. It’s more fitting for college sports, and there’s less ambiguity)
Is there anything lower than an F? I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that Elliott singlehandedly lost this game for the Heels. His offensive line didn’t help him much (more on this later), but even taking that into account, Elliott did nearly everything he was supposed to not do: turned the ball over (four interceptions!!), made bad reads on option plays for much of the first half, stared down receivers, threw up prayers instead of scanning the defense, got several balls batted down at the line, and generally looked like somebody seeing his first college action, not a junior who had started three games to end last season. We already knew that his arm had limitations, and that showed up several times throughout the evening, whether he was one-hopping a pass to the flat, being unable to hit a nearby receiver away from his body while he was on the move, or allowing defensive backs to close in on sideline receivers with his lack of velocity. The expectation was that, with his football IQ and 3 years in the program, he could work around that by reading the field and taking easy completions. They were there. Elliott didn’t take them, preferring to either chance a 50/50 ball to Anthony Ratliff-Williams or hit a checkdown that was obviously covered. Elliott’s final statline reads: 15/35 for 137 yards, 1 touchdown, 4 interceptions. That 3.9 yards per attempt is already plenty ugly, but it gets worse. Before California’s defense turtled and allowed two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, he was 7/21 for 61 yards, and 44 of those came on one play, a heave into double coverage. You get the picture. Elliott was apparently the favorite to start even before Chazz Surratt’s suspension because of his experience and ability to make the right play. He showed exactly none of that against the Golden Bears. And while Mitch Trubisky and Marquise Williams didn’t exactly look great in their 2016 and 2015 openers, there was at least some indication that they would be good once the team got into rhythm: a play, a series, a stretch where they showed the ability of a good college starter. I saw none of that with Elliott on Saturday. It really seems like he showed us who he is, and that’s somebody who should not be starting for this team. I should mention here that Elliott had an okay game as a runner, taking 10 carries for 58 yards. Once he realized that the Cal defense was 100% keying on the running backs on option handoffs, he took advantage of it and picked up good yardage consistently with his legs. It’s not enough to make up for a horrendous passing day, though.
Running backs: C+
You have to feel for the Carolina running backs. The offensive line, in the group’s first game, looked out of sync and unable to open anything up in the run game, and even if they found some push, the California defense figured out quickly that Elliott wasn’t going to beat them with his arm and stacked the box basically the whole game. The backs didn’t really have much of a chance from the get-go. So that there was really any production is a statement to their quality. Jordon Brown managed to even have a good day, breaking off a 21-yard run and recording 6 rushes for 35 yards. Starter Antonio Williams wasn’t as impressive, running into a defensive lineman immediately on nearly every carry and taking his 17 carries for just 47 yards. He did score his first touchdown as a Tar Heel, though, so that’s nice. But there were a lot of mistakes from this unit, as well. Antonio Williams has some work to do as a pass catcher and as an outside-the-tackles runner; he doesn’t have natural hands and doesn’t maximize his angles on the edge. UNC tried to set up several screens with him, and while many were blown up at the quarterback position, the ones that got to him didn’t go anywhere because he couldn’t find the right path. He caught two balls and both just got back to the line of scrimmage. The other two backs, Brown and Javonte Williams, fared better, combining for 6 catches and 45 yards. Williams made a freshman mistake early, though, when he didn’t look back for a screen planned to go to him, and nearly caused another interception. The backs had an okay day given what they had to work with, but they still could’ve been significantly better.
Wide Receivers: C-
This is almost entirely just for Anthony Ratliff-Williams, seeing as the other wideouts on the team didn’t get much of a chance to show anything. Four balls were caught by players who weren’t ARW or one of the running backs, and all were pretty simple pitch-and-catches. The one exception was Rontavius “Toe” Groves’ 14-yarder on a curl, where he got wide open and pulled in what was easily Elliott’s best throw of the day. That play alone elevates this grade from a D+ to a C-.
But now let’s talk about Ratliff-Williams. UNC press and coaches alike have made no secret of the fact that they expect ARW to be among the ACC’s best receivers this year. He was the team’s primary playmaker last year and had apparently worked tremendously hard this offseason to refine his craft, becoming a more technical wide receiver to go with his athletic dominance. It... didn’t show against the Golden Bears. He couldn’t hang on to two early deep passes through contact (some would say contact began well before the ball got there on one or both of those, but I digress), his release was inconsistent, he dropped a wide-open touchdown that he either lost in the sun or didn’t expect to get to him, and for a guy who’s been told and then told press that “50/50” jump balls are “80/20” for him, had the ball knocked out of his hands multiple times. He was also called for multiple holding penalties. He had a couple of excellent catches, including the aforementioned 44-yarder and a touchdown that both required elite body control and concentration, so we know what he’s capable of. It’s past time for him to stop flashing and start producing regularly, though. We expect better.
Tight ends will be included with this group as the season continues, but there was literally no reason to include them in this week’s edition.
Offensive Line: D
It was bad. There’s not really another way to say it. For most of the game, the offensive line failed to execute, letting in pressure at an alarming rate and failing to open holes in the run game. California’s defensive line is not good, folks, but the Carolina offensive line made them look stellar, as they continuously blew up plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. I couldn’t tell if there were any particular weak or strong spots; the whole thing just looked discombobulated. If there’s a reason for hope in this section, it’s that it did look a lot more like the problem was a lack of chemistry along the line, which was predictable and will solve itself, than a lack of talent, which I, for one, wouldn’t have seen coming, and which would also have been a ton more problematic. For now, though, they’ve earned the grade they got.
Defensive Line: A-
At least one unit that was supposed to be a strength delivered. For as anemic as UNC’s offense was, California’s was even worse: Their quarterbacks averaged 3.7 yards per attempt to Elliott’s 3.9, and star running back Patrick Laird averaged just 3.3 yards per rushing attempt. Sure, he rushed for 95 yards, but that’s not that impressive when it comes at the price of 28 totes. If you’d told me before the game that UNC’s defense would hold California to that kind of performance, I would’ve expected a multiple-score victory... but alas. The point is, UNC’s defensive line got a significant amount of push on an offensive line with a year’s worth of cohesion. They blew Laird up at the line of scrimmage repeatedly, got pressure on the quarterbacks, converted that pressure into four sacks, and were the primary reason Cal was just 4/17 on 3rd down. They fell apart at a couple of crucial junctures where they didn’t respond to overloaded formations and allowed Laird to run free off the edge, but this was an excellent performance. Malik Carney in particular made a statement in the first game of his senior year, with 8 solo tackles, 3 of them behind the line, and 2 sacks. Jalen Dalton also had a decent comeback from his offseason injury, plugging the point of attack effectively and recording half a sack.
The defensive line made their job easy, but they still had to do it. And this was, in the minds of many Carolina fans, no guarantee. This linebacking unit had a lot of questions surrounding it. Well, for one game, those have been staved off, as the Carolina linebackers played a fine game. They didn’t get beaten across the middle of the field, Jonathan Smith was excellent as a blitzer with 1.5 sacks, Cole Holcomb was his tackle-machine self with 7 on the day, and they generally were able to clean up the plays that the defensive line started. Missed tackles were few and far between and the linebackers showed a nose for the ball. The one flaw with their performance was that they lost contain on California’s mobile quarterbacks; Brandon McIlwain rushed 3 times for 26 yards and Chase Garber ran 10 times for 39 yards. Those numbers aren’t awful for the defense, but they were enough for Cal to move the chains when everything else was all but bottled up. Still, when you hold an opposing rushing unit to 3.3 yards per carry, you’ve had a good game.
Your day can’t have been too bad when you hold an opposing passing attack to 50% completion, 3.7 yards per attempt, and 119 yards passing. But it could’ve been much better, and that’s why the secondary gets the lowest grade of the lot. Ross Bowers, Cal’s starting signal-caller, was only a shade better than Nathan Elliott. He had the same weak arm, the same inability to read the field, and, though he had more of a pocket than Elliott, he completely didn’t understand how to navigate it. And yet California’s secondary turned Elliott’s ineptitude into four picks. The UNC secondary, playing much less aggressively, didn’t manage any, and wasn’t particularly close. Cal’s defense refused to respect Elliott and it paid off. Had the Tar Heel defense done the same, and it would’ve been justifiable, they might have given their offense easy scoring opportunities the same way the opposition was able to. Chase Garbers, the primary backup, was seeing his first college action and wasn’t much better, but UNC still gave him targets to throw to and time to throw.
It’s a nitpicky and high-maintenance complaint, to be sure, and that’s why it doesn’t affect the grade much. K.J. Sails had a couple of good pass breakups. Trey Morrison was very good as a nickel back and as a corner blitzer. Both safeties, Myles Dorn and J.K. Britt, along with Myles Wolfolk, covered the field ably and made some big plays in the box. Britt deserves special mention with 6 solo tackles. The secondary, like the rest of the defense, played well. I just feel that in this position group’s case, there was a lot more opportunity to do better.
Special Teams: A
Nothing to complain about here. Freeman Jones knocked in a 43-yard field goal, Hunter Lent had to punt 7 times - including a 29-yarder that was fair caught at the 7 - and maintained a 42-yard average, and Dazz Newsome had an excellent 27-yard punt return. Ratliff-Williams was bottled up pretty effectively on kickoff returns, but you expect that to happen most of the time. And the cherry on top was an excellent tackle by Johnathan Sutton in punt coverage that was basically UNC’s only exciting moment in the first half. Jones also executed two excellent onside kicks to give his team a chance to tie it, but both were called back for penalties. You can’t ask for more than that.
I think the original gameplan for this game was to just run the ball down California’s throats. We saw a ton of failed rushes and very few real attempts at moving the chains through the air. It wasn’t a bad plan, given the scouting report on Cal’s defensive line. It didn’t work, though, and that was evident very quickly. On Carolina’s first five drives, four followed the following pattern: run-run-pass-drive over. The other one consisted of 3 incomplete passes, two intended for running backs. At this point, you’d expect a backup plan, or at least something to get the defense off-schedule. There was nothing. Other than a reverse to Ratliff-Williams that gained good yardage, the offensive gameplan had just about zero interest in catching the Golden Bears’ defense off-guard, and that’s a big failure of the staff’s preparatory work. UNC was also called for 13 penalties for 124 yards, which is simply unacceptable. This lack of discipline is quickly becoming one of Larry Fedora’s more dubious hallmarks as UNC’s coach, and it needs to stop if UNC is to get back to its winning ways. California is not a good team. Minus their linebackers and a receiver or two, nothing about them is particularly impressive. Dropping this game to them in such humiliating fashion, regardless of the final score, is a serious black mark. The one real compliment I can pay Fedora is that he kept the team fighting, to the point where they had a legitimate chance to tie it up with a minute left in the ballgame. Most watchers probably would not have put money on that happening at the end of the third quarter. But besides that, it was another opening day stinker from Fedora, and while that hasn’t usually been a sign of the season to come, some apprehension is certainly warranted.