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UNC Football: Penetration

The title of this blog post is not a joke about the University of South Carolina’s mascot.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

It can’t be easy.

As the minutes drained off of the clock in Charlotte, a South Carolina quarterback cut his drop short, rushing a check-down pass to a receiver in the flats that tumbled harmlessly to the turf at his feet. I don’t remember the exact situation, but the Tar Heels had to have been up two or three scores by this point. There was still enough time on the clock for them to make things interesting, for the team from Columbia to put something together and try to claw their way back into the game. Instead, the USC quarterback bailed on his drop.

It can’t be easy.

Spencer Rattler is a good quarterback. Down the stretch of their last season, he stepped up and put his team in position to win games. They were able to upset rival Clemson as well as a couple of ranked SEC foes in Kentucky and Tennessee. He went nuclear in their inspiring win over the Volunteers, throwing six touchdowns to silence Rocky Top and spoil Tennessee’s outside shot to the College Football Playoff. He was sacked once in that game, thrice against Kentucky, and four times against Clemson (the second highest total on the season, behind only the six-sack loss at Arkansas). South Carolina was a fun team to watch to end last season, and Rattler played well enough to raise eyebrows nationally.

It can’t be easy, then, to feel like you can’t step into your throws. To be hounded to such an extent that you can’t settle into your reads. To be under such prolonged duress that you bail out of your drop even without an immediate threat.

Carolina sacked Spencer Rattler nine times. Nine. That’s an unbelievable total for a unit that only managed 17 sacks in the entirety of last season. Kaimon Rucker and Amari Gainer had two apiece, while Cedric Gray, Tomari Fox, Desmond Evans, and Beau Atkinson combined for the other five. The South Carolina offense was dead in the water after halftime, not even resurrected by a surprise onside kick recovery to open the half, nor two ill-timed and uncharacteristic interceptions from Drake Maye. After finding the endzone in each of the first two quarters, the Gamecocks only managed to scrounge up three points after halftime, even when the majority of the bounces seemed to be going their way.

The Tar Heel defensive front lived in South Carolina’s backfield, as well as their quarterback’s mind. On at least one occasion, the Carolina defense got home with a three man rush, a foreign sight for fans accustomed to last year’s effort. Rattler was running for his life, at every turn hounded by large men dressed head to toe in light blue, and often left to pick himself up off the ground and come to terms with second-, third-, or even fourth-and-long.

It’s hard to forecast anything based on the first game of the year, but the defense showed up for last night’s game. Maybe it was the memory of losing to that team, on that field, to end the 2021 season. Maybe it was South Carolina’s oft-repeated insistence that they are “the real Carolina.” Maybe it’s a new day for the Carolina defense. Whatever it is, it spooked an experienced quarterback into giving up on his drop, and that’s a beautiful thing.

On this, the first weekend of college football, it is a great day to be a Tar Heel.