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Tar Heel Hangover: Cautiously optimistic after finally getting a win!

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Breaking down the victory over South Carolina and looking ahead.

South Carolina v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Welcome back to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review last week’s games, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead. Having taken the summer off from game analysis to present fun debate topics, it is now time to dive back in to the serious work of the regular season.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

For the first time in over two decades, the Heels won a non-home opener against a Power 5 opponent. It was a hard fought game full of the types of mistakes that one would expect for week 1. Incredibly, after two long seasons of frustration, Carolina was able to finally break through on a national stage with a big win. By the end of the year, the victory over the Gamecocks may not seem as impressive (with their schedule, just making a bowl game will be difficult), but it sure looks good for opening day.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

The score indicated that the game was close. The truth, however, is that victory was even more precarious to come by than could be imagined. With so much at stake for a young Carolina team with a new coach that repeatedly lost close games last year, giving away the game on Saturday could have had a season-long negative impact.

Commentators frequently like to say that coaches love games where their teams make mistakes but pull out the win. It gives a purpose to practice the following week. As Mack Brown said in his emotional post game interview, the team made plenty of mistakes.

Let’s start with the penalties. The Heels had 10 infractions for a total of 90 yards. Several of the false starts were overcome by a potent offense that was able to chew up yards. Two defensive penalties, however, were essentially turnovers. A terrible defensive pass interference and a hands to the face penalty both resulted in first down gifts to the Gamecocks. Those kinds of penalties spurred memories of the last couple of years and must be cleaned up.

Carolina took care of the ball well with only one Sam Howell fumble on the stat sheet. That one could have been costly, however, coming in the second half with South Carolina leading 20-9. A great defensive series forced a punt to avoid any damage. Truthfully, however, Howell should have had at least one interception on a miracle throw that turned into a big Carolina first down. Those are the kind of positive breaks this team has been missing.

There are also some coaching decisions to question with the new staff. The conservative play calling in the red zone during the first half resulted in no passes and 2 field goals. A third field goal in the third quarter made it look like touchdowns could just be out of reach. Fortunately, the staff took the governor off of Howell’s arm as the game wound down (likely driven by the deficit). Additionally, what in the world happened in the final 30 seconds? Taking a knee on fourth down in your own territory? That is the kind of poor game management that fans have experienced from the last coaching regime and what we have no interest in seeing going forward.

Key stat for the week.

Time of possession. The last couple of years have seen quick three and outs that turned an energized first half defense into a second half tired liability. The opposite was true Saturday. With a dedication to the running game (52 rushes to only 24 pass attempts), Carolina had nearly 34 minutes of possession. Most impressive was the second half where the Tar Heel defense turned up the pressure and got off the field. Of South Carolina’s 8 second half drives, only one was over 2 minutes long (the 7 play touchdown drive). The Gamecocks defense looked tired down the stretch allowing an enthusiastic Carolina team to turn the tables.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

The Heels will host Miami in week 2 with the Hurricanes coming off of a hard fought loss to Florida after holding a half time lead. Miami held the Gators to only 50 yards rushing on 27 attempts, which seems to set up an early season clash of styles with the ground happy Heels.

There should be a great atmosphere at Kenan with the new field and newly energized team. Positive momentum from last week should carry the early going but the Heels will need to limit mistakes to win.

Also keep an eye on Chazz Surratt. Last year’s quarterback turned this year’s linebacker was all around the ball on Saturday but failed to finish plays, including on the long touchdown run in the first half by South Carolina. Surratt clearly has good instincts but needs to improve his technique and execution in order to be a quality linebacker.

Final Thoughts

Put me squarely in the camp of the pessimists who are pleasantly surprised/elated after week one. That win, however, does not mean that the season will necessarily be a success or that this team is back. The margin of victory was razor thin and frankly it was a lot of overdue good fortune that was the difference. The home opener arrives with some confidence that has long been lacking.

Go Heels!