The defense held up just fine. North Carolina kicked two long field goals. The Tar Heels pounded the ball on the ground, Elijah Hood in particular.
These were all things that would not have happened with North Carolina last season.
Then there was Marquise Williams throwing three interceptions – bad reads, bad passes – deep in South Carolina territory, two in the end zone, the last depriving the Tar Heels of any chance to win.
This was also something that would not have happened with North Carolina last season.
The defense delivered, and Williams, the Charlotte native playing in his hometown, faltered. It was not exactly the kind of script anyone could have expected to begin the season – especially not Williams.
“It wasn’t really jitters,” Williams said afterward. “I’ve been playing the game a long time. It’s my fifth year. They were just stupid mistakes I made.”
Thursday night’s 17-13 loss to South Carolina put a serious damper on any ambitions the Tar Heels might have had of a breakthrough season. There’s still a lot of football to be played, but any best-case scenario for North Carolina included a win over the Gamecocks.
“We needed to win the football game to be where we wanted to be, and we didn’t get it done,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said.
The Tar Heels get a break in the schedule now, with home games against two FCS opponents and an Illinois program in complete disarray, but the issues they have to address are offensive, not defensive – a complete 180 from a year ago.
This much is clear: North Carolina’s defense is at the very least competent, as it was expected to be under new coordinator Gene Chizik. Other than the lack of a persistent pass rush and Des Lawrence dropping what would have been a certain interception for a touchdown, much improvement appears to have been made.
That was the biggest question going into the season. Williams was not. Despite offseason hip surgery that kept him out of spring practice, he was supposed to be a constant, someone the Tar Heels could count on beyond all else, potentially even a Heisman Trophy candidate if all the pieces clicked into place.
Thursday, he was the difference between victory and defeat, first throwing the ball to Gamecocks linebacker Skai Moore in the middle of the end zone on North Carolina’s opening drive, then staring down Quinshad Davis in the third quarter before Jordan Diggs jumped the route.
The Tar Heels’ best final chance to win evaporated with Williams’ third interception, again in the end zone, again to Moore – on the same play, Williams said.
“We had a couple guys open in the back of the end zone,” North Carolina receiver Bug Howard said. “He throws that three or four inches higher, it’s a touchdown and it’s a different game.”
Williams’ struggles were as costly as they were unexpected, especially on a night when the Tar Heels were able to run the ball with impunity. It was Williams’ third straight subpar performance going back to last season, all North Carolina losses, since N.C. State defensive back Hakim Jones questioned Williams’ toughness.
All three of Thursday’s interceptions, the most of Williams’ career, were deep in South Carolina territory. In a game eventually decided by a mere four points, those turnovers were the difference.
“I was making rookie mistakes, trying to get the ball in the end zone, get points on the board,” Williams said. “Trying to force something.”
Williams, to his eternal credit, accepted complete responsibility afterward, even if it wasn’t entirely his. (Where was Hood, who the Gamecocks couldn’t stop, when the Tar Heels had the ball inside the 10-yard line at the end?)
Williams knows he can play better than this. For North Carolina to accomplish the goals it has left, there isn’t any other way.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947