Photo by Smith Hardy
Just before Donnie Miles sat down for postgame interviews on Saturday, a half-hour or so after Carolina’s season-opening loss to Cal, a bowl representative approached the Tar Heel senior safety. “Let’s get this turned around,” the rep said to Miles. “You didn’t win today, but let’s get eight or nine wins [and make a trip to the bowl game].”
“We’re going to do it,” Miles said, nodding his head. “We’re going to do what we did in 2015.” Two years ago, Carolina lost a game they should have won to South Carolina, then reeled off 11 straight wins, made an appearance in the ACC Championship game and played in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Tar Heels learned from their mistakes against the Gamecocks and vowed to do better. They did.
On Saturday, they lost a game they should have won against the Golden Bears, with costly turnovers on offense and blown assignments on defense and costly penalties contributing to a 35-30 score. Just as was the case in 2015, there’s plenty to learn from and build upon.
“We didn’t win the football game, but it wasn’t because of the effort on the field,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “The guys played extremely hard throughout the entire game in every phase. The problems were, we made too many mistakes.”
They did. Carolina went into Saturday without a defined starter at quarterback. Graduate transfer Brandon Harris got the ball to start the game, with redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt coming in on the third series. Both showed flashes of potential; both were inconsistent. Both lacked touch on their deep throws. Both were perhaps a little too dance-happy in the pocket.
With Harris in the backfield, the offense went three-and-out on Carolina’s first two drives. The Tar Heels scored a touchdown on Surratt’s first series, though that was mainly due to a 47-yard Michael Carter rush aided by a Cal facemask penalty. Surratt’s second drive was short-circuited by a Carter fumble. Harris directed a field goal drive; Surratt’s next series ended in another Carter score after an Andre Smith interception set them up with good field position.
But two plays late in the half –two mistakes– gave Cal momentum heading in the locker room and contributed mightily to the loss. With the Bears deep in their own territory, 3rd and 12 at the Cal 18, what looked to be the end of a drive turned into a major mistake. Jalen Dalton nailed Cal quarterback Ross Bowers after the passer threw ball away and was ejected for targeting. That cost the Tar Heels the ball and great field position, not to mention the 15 yards from the penalty. And on the very next snap, a blown assignment resulted in a 67-yard Cal touchdown. Just like that.
“That was big, because they scored a touchdown on a long play,” Fedora said. “we got them backed up and punted and again, you can’t make mistakes like that. You have to be smart.”
Harris looked to engineer a scoring drive at the end of the half, but an interception into the hands of Devante Downs sent Cal into locker room down three but with the ball and all the momentum.
The quarterback rotation seemed not to allow either signal-caller –or the offense in general– to find a rhythm. Meanwhile, Cal was exploiting blown coverages and a lack of pressure on the quarterback. A 3rd and 6 at midfield late in the third quarter turned into a 54-yard catch and run, complete with a bevy of broken tackles. The Golden Bears started the fourth with a 20-yard touchdown pass. And when they needed to burn the clock, Cal balanced the pass and the run to reach the end zone again and essentially put the game away with two minutes to play.
It hurts to start 0-1. Certainly it hurts the players and coaches, but it also hurts the fans, the students, alumni and supporters who dutifully file into Kenan Stadium for the season opener every year, full of hope. They want to be there. They want their friends to come. They believe, and they want others to, too. Carolina football fans know that Carolina athletics is not a zero-sum game: any success that Carolina football has does not take away from men’s basketball; it only helps, in fact. But starting 0-1, dropping a winnable game like Saturday’s does not help. It makes it too easy to say, “there’s always basketball season” when the Tar Heel football game can’t be counted upon to win the games it should. And that’s disappointing.
Yet here we are. There are things to clean up, things to work on next week. There are questions that the players have to ask themselves about those blown assignments and turnovers. There are questions that the coaching staff must answer. Why, for example, did Carter touch the ball just four times in the second half after he scored twice and rushed for 71 yards in the first? Would it help the offense if they knew which quarterback was going to run into the huddle more than a few seconds before a drive began?
Alas, those are questions that must be asked with an 0-1 record. The Tar Heels are already behind the 8-ball, and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville come to town next weekend. It’s daunting, from here, but the Tar Heels say they’re up to the challenge.
“It excites me,” Andre Smith said of Jackson and the Cardinals visiting Chapel Hill. “We get an opportunity to play against a really great player and go back to work. We’ve obviously got a lot to learn from this film, so we’re just going to get in, watch the film and move on.”
Miles echoed his teammate. “We’re going to bounce back,” he said. “Our goal is to be 11-1 from now on. If nobody else believes it, that’s fine. But we believe it.”