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Grounded by the Gamecocks

By Chris Moore
Editor, Carolina Blue Magazine

Romar Morris fends off a South Carolina defender as he rushes into the red zone early in the second half.

COLUMBIA, S.C. – North Carolina knew exactly what it had to do to escape Williams-Brice Stadium with the upset.

The Tar Heels had to limit the impact of superstar defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. They had to be sharp and not give No. 6 South Carolina any extra chances. And, perhaps most importantly, they had to eliminate the big plays that haunted them so often a season ago.

When it came down to it, UNC (0-1, 0-0 ACC) just couldn’t find enough success at all three of those aspects in its season-opening 27-10 loss at the hands of the Gamecocks (1-0, 0-0 SEC) on Thursday night. The effort, the fight, the enthusiasm – they were all there. It was a plain lack of execution in all three areas of the game that did the Tar Heels in.

“I don’t want to take credit away from what (South Carolina) accomplished. They won the football game and did a great job. But, we have to execute,” coach Larry Fedora said. “If we execute like that, it doesn’t matter — we don’t have a chance. We have to make better decisions with the ball; we have to block better; we have to run harder — all the different things. You have to make plays, and we didn’t make those tonight.”

Giving up the home run

The Tar Heels’ most glaring and most damning failure of the three keys was preventing South Carolina’s big plays. It didn’t take but three plays and 79 seconds for the Gamecocks to find their home run against UNC’s questionable defense.

After two South Carolina runs on the opening series, quarterback Connor Shaw connected with a wide-open Shaq Roland for a 65-yard touchdown toss.

The Tar Heel secondary entered the season with more questions than any other position group – sure, they were the most experienced, but could they become better than the unit that was torched so often last year? Would the litany of injuries that plagued them throughout fall camp result in a shaky start? The answer to that came quickly. Roland burned cornerback Tim Scott on a post route and galloped untouched into the end zone, further fueling the Gamecocks’ already-boisterous home crowd.

Running back A.J. Blue dives forward for extra yardage in the first half of UNC's 27-10 loss to South Carolina.

“Them being home and getting that first touchdown, and the crowd getting hype, that really boosted them. That really messed us up,” Scott said. “We had a lot of improvements from last year’s defense. But, we let up those big plays that really hurt us during the game.”

The big play didn’t strike the Tar Heel defense once, but twice.

After a handful of defensive stops to end the first half, Bryn Renner commanded a drive down to the Gamecocks’ two-yard line to start the second half. While the Tar Heels ultimately had to settle for a chip-in field goal, the deficit was drawn to 10 points, and UNC was right in the thick of it, full of life and belief.

Then, South Carolina running back Mike Davis delivered the dagger. On the first play following the ensuing kickoff, Davis took a handoff to the right side, bounced off a would-be tackler at the line of scrimmage and outraced the rest of the Tar Heels down the sideline and into the end zone. The 75-yard touchdown run swung all the momentum back to the Gamecocks, and UNC was never able to erase the 17-point deficit.

“We worked a lot on eliminating big plays,” Fedora said. “You can’t give up two big plays like that. You can’t do that ... You can’t do a lot of things that we did. Those were disappointing.”

South Carolina gained 34.4 percent of its yardage and more than half its points on two plays. The Tar Heel defense did its job adequately for 57 plays. But, those two slip-ups, which Scott credits to a lack of physical execution rather than a lack of communication, left UNC in a precarious position that it couldn’t overcome.

The Clowney Factor

Clowney’s stat line looks perfectly pedestrian on paper. The junior Heisman candidate tallied three tackles – all in the first half – and zero sacks and zero tackles for losses. The most notable play involving him wasn’t a helmet-popping hit, but rather when UNC reserve tackle Kiaro Holts controversially dove at the back of his knee late in the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Bryn Renner was forced into throwing short-yardage passes to thwart the Gamecocks' pass rush.

While All-ACC tackle James Hurst gave Clowney all he could handle, the presence of the defensive end caused a much larger disturbance than anything that appears in a box score.

With the exception of its breakneck tempo, UNC’s offense shared a vague resemblance to the one Fedora carefully crafted last season. Gone were the downfield shots to streaking receivers, replaced by bubble screens and quick passes in the flats. Renner rarely took the time to set his feet, make his reads and sling a pass. Instead, he was rolling out of the pocket or trying to make plays from the zone-read option.

No, it wasn’t the UNC offense we’re used to seeing, one that was supposed to be even more dynamic with the experience returning among the skill players. That was Fedora’s game plan, though, and it was all out of respect for Clowney.

“We wanted to give our offensive line a chance and get the ball out quick, try to spread out the ball and make some plays in the open field instead of pushing it down the field as much,” Fedora said. “That was part of the thing, to try to help our offensive line with Clowney. Try to get the ball out a little bit quicker, try to get him a little frustrated because he’s not getting those big sacks.”

While it succeeded at keeping Clowney at bay, the lack of rhythm in UNC’s offense was evident. The Tar Heels’ 10 points are the fewest they’ve ever scored in 13 games under Fedora, and it’s just the second time they’ve been held under 20.

“It was frustrating because we’re normally scoring, like, 40-to-50 points a game, and we just couldn’t get it together for this game” running back Romar Morris said. “We just tried to keep the game plan as simple as possible. We just weren’t executing what we were trying to do.”

Renner completed 26 passes on the night, but averaged just 4.5 yards per attempt. Quinshad Davis was the Tar Heels’ leading receiver with 39 yards on four catches, proving just how rarely UNC was able to get the ball down the field.

Capitalizing on the chances

An underdog has zero room for error when it goes for the upset. It knows this going into the contest. It has to make good on all its chances while ensuring the favorite doesn’t get extra opportunities.

The Tar Heels failed in both regards Thursday night.

The most deflating error of this kind came midway through the second quarter. UNC had trimmed South Carolina’s lead to 17-7 and made a crucial defensive stop, forcing the Gamecocks to punt from their own end zone. The Tar Heels were set to take possession around the 50-yard line, putting them in prime position to turn the contest into a one-possession game.

But, T.J. Thorpe – playing in his first game since the Independence Bowl in 2011 – muffed the punt and gave the ball back to South Carolina. Though the Tar Heel defense held on the following drive, South Carolina flipped the field position battle and eventually converted the opportunity into a field goal – a 10-point swing had the Tar Heels retained possession and scored a touchdown.

“We had made a nice stop on their end of the field, and we were going to have the ball at about midfield,” Fedora said. “You have to feel pretty good about that, and we turn around and put the defense right back out there on the field. You can’t do that and win games like that. It’s just not going to happen.”

UNC failed to capitalize on its chances even when it did secure the football. Twice the Tar Heels marched inside South Carolina’s own five-yard line, and three points are all they have to show for it.

On the first drive of the second half, UNC successfully moved the ball down the field on a 17-play, 67-yard drive. But, once Morris ran the Tar Heels down to the two-yard line, UNC was stonewalled. Instead of a 20-14 game, UNC had to settle for a 10-point deficit, which quickly ballooned to the insurmountable 17.

“Things like that are really tough,” Hurst said. “We had some bad moments at critical times, and that was one of them. Twice we went down in the red zone and came out with three and nothing, and you really can’t have that against a good team like that.”

Fedora referred to the Tar Heels’ loss as a measuring-stick game. UNC wasn’t blown out on the road at a top-10 team. That’s the good news for the second-year coach.

But, a widespread lack of execution rendered the Tar Heels’ upset chances faint from the beginning. UNC’s players and coaches spoke confidently throughout the summer and fall that the program’s second-year improvements were substantial. The offense clicked even better with a firmer grasp of the system, they said, and the defense’s emphasis on limiting the big plays was paying off, they said.

Thursday’s game proved that while growth may have been made in those regards, UNC still isn’t where it needs to be to compete at the national level. Only when the Tar Heels can execute the basics of a game plan will they take the desired next step.

Judging by the flat showing at South Carolina, there’s still quite a bit of work to do.

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