CHARLOTTE North Carolina’s primary goals are still there. Winning the ACC’s Coastal Division. Competing for a conference championship. Those things are still possible.
Not the way the Tar Heels played during their 17-13 loss against South Carolina on Thursday night, necessarily, but possible, nonetheless. And so after a loss that had to sting as much as any during Larry Fedora’s coaching tenure, that’s where UNC attempted to turn its focus: on what still could be.
“I already talked to the guys in the locker room,” Jeff Schoettmer, UNC’s senior middle linebacker, said. “All our goals remain intact. We definitely wanted to beat an SEC opponent and open our season with the win, but we can still win the ACC. One game does not define our season.”
That it does not. But the mistakes that UNC made Thursday night – the opportunities that it left there for taking – could come back to haunt the Tar Heels in their fourth season under Fedora.
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After Thursday, UNC still hasn’t won a season-opening game against a major-conference opponent since 1997. The Tar Heels are 0-8 in those games since ’97, which also is the last time UNC won more than eight games in a season.
That’s the ultimate goal for Fedora and his program: to become nationally relevant again. The potential is there, at least. That was clear enough Thursday. But the execution was missing, and that continues to be a troubling trend.
In three seasons and one game under Fedora, the Tar Heels have lost games in a variety of ways: after being blown out early and after losing leads late. They have lost in ways strange and not so strange.
UNC discovered a new way to lose Thursday – with three turnovers inside the South Carolina 20, all on Marquise Williams interceptions. Williams, a fifth-year senior, entered the season amid talk that he might be the ACC’s best quarterback. He was playing Thursday night in his hometown.
It couldn’t have been a much worse homecoming. UNC’s first drive ended when Williams threw an interception in the end zone. And its final drive ended the same way.
Both of Williams’ end-zone interceptions came on ill-advised passes over the middle, where Skai Moore, the Gamecocks’ middle linebacker, made relatively easy plays.
“We were down there three or four times and didn’t execute,” said Williams, who completed 19 of his 31 attempts for 232 yards and one touchdown. “You have to get touchdowns.”
UNC, despite returning every offensive player of significance from a season ago, scored but one touchdown. The Tar Heels’ six second-half possessions ended like this: turnover on downs, punt, interception, punt, punt, interception.
The final of those was the final of Williams’ three interceptions, and it came after UNC, needing a touchdown to take the lead, began its drive on its own 20. Williams was effective, at least, in the beginning of the drive. But it ended the way two others did: with a turnover in the red zone.
Fedora had difficulty explaining Williams’ decision-making.
“He threw it to the guys in the red and not the blue,” Fedora said, referring to the teams’ uniform colors. “I don’t have an answer for you. If I would have an answer, I would have gotten it changed. I kept thinking that he was going to get it going … it just wasn’t consistent enough.”
At least the passing game wasn’t. UNC’s running game gave the Tar Heels a chance – especially during the second half. Elijah Hood, a sophomore from Charlotte, ran for a career-high 138 yards – all but 20 of them during the second half. He averaged 11.5 yards per carry.
Yet when UNC drove inside the South Carolina 20, Hood wasn’t a part of the offense.
“Elijah ran the ball pretty well,” Williams said. “Coach felt like we needed to do something different.”
Asked why Hood wasn’t more a part of the offense deep inside South Carolina territory, Fedora said it was because UNC faced unfavorable down and distances and that the Tar Heels “got behind the chains.”
On the Tar Heels’ final drive, though, UNC had a first-and-goal on the South Carolina 9 and the Tar Heels never lost yardage on that series of downs. Still, Hood didn’t receive a carry.
“We just didn’t get it done offensively,” Fedora said.
That was disappointing, especially, because the Tar Heels did get it done defensively in their first game with coordinator Gene Chizik. The 17 points UNC allowed would have been a season-low last year. The Tar Heels allowed 394 yards and that, too, would have been the fewest a season ago.
The thought was that if UNC’s defense could just be average, its offense would be good enough to lead the Tar Heels to victory. That assumption, though, was proven false at Bank of America Stadium in a season opener that arguably represented Fedora’s most important test to date.
UNC’s offense led the Tar Heels to the brink of success Thursday night. But when it most needed to score to win a game that could have been a program-building victory, UNC faltered. When it ended, not long after Williams’ final interception, UNC was left to ponder another lost opportunity in a game full of them.