The win on Saturday was cathartic for a lot of reasons, all of which tie into the fact that it felt like the program has been here before. It felt like another tight game against a Power Five opponent that stayed just within reach but eventually would be frittered away. There was a new coaching staff, a freshman quarterback, and an opponent that had a ton of experience. Yet, Carolina danced out of Charlotte with a win to start 2019 1-0. Let’s delve a little deeper into what stood out on Saturday.
Sam Howell: Brandon covered this yesterday in the three things learned, but it was made clear by the end of the game why true freshman was named the starter after camp. Sure, he made mistakes as he needs to learn to actually slide more instead of taking the contact he did. Plus, his fumble that set South Carolina up at midfield in the third quarter looked like it may be the inevitable back-breaker Tar Heel fans come to expect. The defense held firm, though, and Howell promptly led two masterful drives of 98 and 95 yards down the field to take the lead. Howell has won the team over as Michael Carter put so colorfully in the locker room, and fans have reason to be excited about the potential that the four-star product has.
Running Backs: The trio of Michael Carter, Antonio Williams, and Javonte Williams combined for 38 carries and 232 yards on the ground. This constantly applied pressure to a defensive front that was supposed to give Carolina trouble. The relentless attack may have been relied on a little too much in the first half, but it’s clear there was a plan in place to wear down the South Carolina defense. The Heels have had great running backs for seasons, and a constant frustration of the fan base with Larry Fedora was their improper use as the game went on. That was not the case this weekend. In a lot of ways, the game turned on Antonio’s 20-yard run from the UNC 2 in the 3rd quarter. He hadn’t seen much action as both Carter and Javonte had great games, but his immediate impact gave the Tar Heels breathing room and seemed to sap South Carolina of their will.
Jay Bateman: It’s amazing to live in a time when a coach scouts an opening opponent, game plans for that opponent, and that plan comes to fruition. It’s even more amazing that the same coach overcomes missing key players, plug in a converted quarterback, and instill the confidence in a group to consistently make plays. The Gamecocks did not have a single drive of 10 or more plays all game, and in the second half none were over seven. If you really want to be impressed, look at the drive results immediately after South Carolina recovered the Howell fumble: three-and-out punt, five-and-out punt, interception after five plays, interception after one play, and a sack to end the game. On a hot and humid day in Charlotte, the defense couldn’t afford to be on the field for long stretches and time and time again, they answered. That’s a credit to the Army hire and the whole defensive staff, and a legitimate reason to be excited for the whole season.
Special Teams: I fired off a hot take about the special teams in the bold predictions column, and they sure seemed to do what they could to make it come true. The good news is that the new field goal kicker, Noah Ruggles, hit all his kicks through the cross bars when they got past the line of scrimmage. That’s pretty much the only good news for that unit. One field goal was blocked. The kick return unit was especially horrid, as the Gamecocks averaged 33.3 yards on kickoff returns, and 22 yards on punt returns. New punter Ben Kiernan shanked one early and then seemed to outkick the coverage other times. All of this added up to South Carolina starting off with amazing field position time and time again, and it nearly cost the Tar Heels the game. That unit is going to need to tighten up.
Tackling: South Carolina’s first touchdown was the result of a missed tackle by Chazz Surratt, who also had quarterback Jake Bentley in his grasp and just bounced off. Multiple times running backs Tavien Feaster and Rico Dowdle were able to turn minimal gains into chunk plays, and the aforementioned special teams seemed to just slip off the returners. The tackling was better in the second half, but the Gamecocks really didn’t make the Tar Heels pay for these mistakes like they could have.
Discipline: The Sam Howell Era began with a false start. So did the second series. Carolina was called multiple times for hands to the face, one even gave the Gamecocks new life after what would have been a three-and-out. Overall, the Tar Heels had 10 penalties for 90 yards, showing that one of the biggest problems from last year still hasn’t been completely weeded out. As the season goes along, this is going to have to improve before it costs them some games.
Phil Longo was ridiculously conservative with his game plan in the first half, but took the “advice” of Mack Brown and opened it up in the second. In retrospect, the calls for how conservative he was may have been an overreaction since it seemed to pay dividends. Chazz Surratt led the team in tackles, and deserves praise for the commitment he’s shown to his new position. His missed tackles would also tell you he still has a lot to learn, and hopefully he won’t be required to play as many snaps as he was Saturday. Dazz Newsome made up for a painful drop by catching the seeing-eye ball that Howell threw under pressure in the fourth, and hopefully he sees the ball more in future games. Myles Wolfolk got Carolina their first turnovers of the year with his two picks, which was the highlight of an outstanding day for the secondary. Finally, we can’t end without showing you the Dyami Brown catch for Carolina’s first touchdown. This receiving corps is known for its drops, but Brown’s outstanding effort lit up the Tar Heel sideline and fans. It gave everyone hope that this season may just be different. This catch has to be seen in slow-mo to do it justice.