In what is a way too familiar sentence for me to type and you to read, the North Carolina Tar Heels were unable to win their season opening game against a Power Five opponent, losing to the Cal Bears for the second year in a row. The majority of the game was ugly on offense, hopeful on defense, and featured a deja vu moment as Carolina lost the recovery of an onside kick on a sketchy call.
This season, along with the analysis you’ve come to expect, we’re going give you a quick look at people associated with Carolina that helped and hurt their cause. So, after week 1, who do we feel good about, and who do we feel worse about?
Malik Carney leads off the list with his outstanding performance anchoring a defensive line that lived up to the expectations fans had for them going into the game. The senior had eight solo tackles and two sacks, and played a huge role in making Cal’s offense perform statistically worse than Carolina’s. It’s unfortunate that Cal’s offense got the benefit of four turnovers to, in effect, waste this performance. The sting is a little harder knowing that Carney will now sit four games, but the silver lining is that he showed he will be a huge piece when he returns on a Thursday Night against Miami. That he will be rested when the rest of the team will be coming off four days rest will be a huge key of that game.
Jonathan Smith was a big winner of the the more questionable part of the defense, the linebacking core. He was tied for second on the team with total tackles with six and had five solo tackles. Included in that total was 1.5 sacks to lead the core in showing they are willing to make sure the defensive line isn't alone in the fight this season. Overall, the defensive side of the ball had an outstanding day and it should have been part of a season-opening victory. As it was, their work kept Carolina in a game they had no business being a part of.
Hunter Lent is someone who you wouldn’t think would be on this list, but there was at least some question about how well the punting game would be with Tom Sheldon heading back to Australia after his injury last season. Lent eased all those questions, punting seven times for an average of 42.5 yards, two over fifty, and two downed inside the twenty. With as many times as he was called on it would be easy to imagine he would have worn down, but Lent was up to the task.
Johnathan Sutton also deserves to be here for providing one of the best highlights of the game.
Nathan Elliott just had a horrid game, there’s no other way to describe it. Carolina had nine drives in the first half and got a first down on exactly one of them. That drive, like three others on the day, would end with an interception on the very next throw. He didn’t appear to target anyone besides Anthony Ratliff-Williams, and overall he just didn’t provide any flow for the offense. It was a baffling performance for the junior who had known for the past month he would be the starting quarterback. He started to acquit himself in the second half once Cal stepped back and forced Carolina into drives to kill the clock, but Elliott has thrown a huge question mark into a position fans thought would be at least a little more solid.
The aforementioned Anthony Ratliff-Williams also didn’t put up a performance that had fans thinking he would be All-ACC. Everyone in the stadium knew a pass would be going to him, but when you are the number one receiver you’re expected to rise above that and make some plays to help your team. ARW dropped a couple of passes he had managed to get open for, and while you can quibble that the passes themselves weren’t great, it goes back to the fact that Elliott has been practicing as the starting quarterback since camp started, so by now he should know what to expect from the junior. The season is still young, and the hope is yesterday was just a blip for him.
The final spot on this list is reserved for coach Larry Fedora. Five times since Fedora arrived in 2012 the Tar Heels have opened with a Power Five opponent. This team is the team you game plan for all summer and all camp, meaning you have time for a primary attack and then a secondary attack. They have yet to win one of these games and the team has looked ill-prepared in each one of them. Saturday was especially painful, coming off the rough summer with Fedora’s comments and the sneaker suspensions. All of this is adding up to an erosion of support for the coach, and putting an unnecessary burden on going into Greenville this weekend. It’s worth remembering that Fedora is only 1-2 in the legislatively-mandated game, and a loss this weekend might end a lot of the support he has left.
Antonio Williams didn’t have a great game in his Tar Heel debut, but he seemed to get into a grove later in the game as run lanes started to open up and he did record a touchdown...Dazz Newsome had a real spark of a punt return for 27 yards and looks to be a continuing a trend of the punt return game being a real strength of the team...Freeman Jones did an outstanding job on two onside kicks that should have been Carolina recoveries if not for some mental lapses by the team...The Offensive Line deserves a mention for the horrid job they did in the first half of protecting Elliott and getting the run going, but they have inexperience as an excuse so the hope is they’ll improve over time.
Do you agree, disagree, or think someone was left off? Let us know in the comments below.