A Sympathy Card

A Sympathy Card

Photo by Smith Hardy

It came on Carolina’s last drive, late in the Tar Heels’ 47-35 loss to Louisville. You may have been in the stands at Kenan Stadium, or walking to your car or watching at home, half-paying attention anymore as the game came to a merciful end. Maybe you heard it, but you weren’t really listening. Or maybe you were on the fifth floor of Kenan Football Center, waiting out another loss, hearing the television in the background.

After ESPN sideline reporter Tom Luginbill rightly heaped praise on the performance of Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson, and after play-by-play announcer Dave Pasch called an incomplete pass from Brandon Harris, color commentator Greg McElroy took the time to say a few words about North Carolina, the team on the wrong end of the scoreboard on Saturday.

“And Tom, I’d be remiss, too, if we didn’t mention the effort from North Carolina today. Look, last week was tough. It’s an inexperienced group, it’s a young group still trying to find their way. But they hung in there. And yeah, they allowed way too many big plays and the fourth quarter, got very, very one-sided, but this is a performance to build on and I think Larry Fedora has to be impressed with the grit and toughness that his team showed.”

“Tough pass for Michael Carter there, incomplete,” Pasch interjected, both calling the game and somewhat simultaneously detailing the very type of thing that led to his partner’s comments.

“And you can never walk away from a performance, Tom, where you allow 700 yards, feeling good about it,” McElroy continued, undaunted, “but they fought hard against a team that was much better than them and that has more talent than them, more experience than them and that has the best player on the field, so I think that . . . arrow’s pointing up. Last week’s performance, very disappointing; this week’s performance, a little bit better.”

With all due respect to Greg McElroy –a national champion quarterback at Alabama who is much more knowledgeable about the game than 99 percent of the viewers he’s explaining it to– screw that. Screw it and forget it.

He was not talking about a scrappy young team from the FCS Division or from even outside the Power Five. This was not Fill-in-the-Blank University punching up against big bad Louisville. This was the University of North Carolina, lost on defense and without a rudder on offense, missing tackles, missing plays, missing opportunities and missing fans in the stands by the time the clock hit zero.

This was a team in its sixth year under its head coach, a team that won 11 games two seasons ago and eight last year, combining for 19 games in the past two seasons, two more than . . . Louisville. And yes, the Cardinals brought the reigning Heisman Trophy winner to Chapel Hill, and Jackson was as good as advertised, responsible for 525 total yards, the most ever against the Tar Heels in Kenan Stadium. If it had been Jackson alone that torched the Tar Heels, if he’d won the game for them on a late scramble for a touchdown, that would be one thing. Then, you’d just tip your cap to the best player on the field, smile and call it a night. But it wasn’t just Jackson. It was the sum of the parts on the opposite sideline that didn’t add up to victory.

Jackson was brilliant, but he also was a pedestrian 6-10 in the third quarter, when Carolina cracked open the door with an Anthony Ratliff-Wiliams kick return for a touchdown and Harris, in for the ailing Chazz Surratt, engineered a go-ahead touchdown drive. And then the Tar Heel defense came back on the field and allowed three straight scoring drives from the Cardinals, drives of 75, 70 and 99 yards.

After that first one, with the visitors leading by five, Harris used completions to Austin Proehl and Ratliff-Williams to move the Tar Heels into scoring territory, and then on 4th and 1 at the 29 –after a timeout– the Carolina coaching staff called a drop-back pass which fell incomplete after being tipped at the line of scrimmage.

That was but one missed opportunity on offense for a team admittedly still figuring things out, in search of leadership on that side of the ball after a raft of departures to the NFL. But they still managed 35 points and 401 yards of total offense.

The defense, on the other hand, had a bad day. Jackson can make any defense look foolish, but the Tar Heels know who he was going into the week. In order to win on Saturday, they would need to win battles at the line of scrimmage –they didn’t, not enough; contain receivers –they didn’t; force turnovers –they didn’t; make tackles in open space –they didn’t; and get off the field –they didn’t.

Carolina allowed Jackson and the Cardinal offense to convert 9 of 15 third-down attempts, among them 3rd and 4 for 21, 3rd and 4 for 22, 3rd and 2 for 16, 3rd and 8 for 18, 3rd and 6 for 12 and 3rd and 8 for 30 and a touchdown.

This is not a defense that should lack for leaders, with upperclassmen such as Andre Smith in the middle, Cayson Collins on the strong side and Donnie Miles and M.J. Stewart in the secondary. And yet the consistent holes in the middle of the field are baffling.

 “Just a lack of execution, honestly,” Collins said after the game. “That was a really the only thing, just a lack of execution. We had a good plan. We prepared well. Just a lack of execution.”

That, and a frustrating finger pointed at communication. “We have good leaders on the team,” Collins continued. “We just have to do a better job of stepping up when our backs are against the wall. We need everybody to be on the same page and buy in.”

It makes one wonder just what is going on internally, where the disconnect is as the defense undergoes what everyone insists is a smooth transition from Gene Chizik to former linebackers coach John Papuchis at defensive coordinator. Quite simply, they ought to be better than this.

“We have better leaders than we did my freshman year,” Collins said when asked about another bad defense. “We have better coaches than we had my freshman year, and guys take it more seriously than we did my freshman year, so I’m sure that we’re going to get it together tomorrow. We’re going to talk about it. We’re going to figure out something that we can do to fix it, and we’re going to be better moving forward.”

So, two games in, what do we know about this Tar Heel team? The only indicators that we can point to are the scoreboards. Do we know who the quarterback is going to be next week? Do we know who is the downfield receiving threat? Do we know who is going to get the bulk of the carries at tailback? Do we know who is willing to step up and take responsibility on defense?

Do we know who the punter is? Yes; it’s Tom Sheldon. Kicker? Yes; Freeman Jones. Do we know who’s going to return kicks? Yes; Anthony Ratliff-Williams. So, we can put a check by special teams. Beyond that? It’s a mystery.

What do the players know? “I know for sure, one thing about this team is that each and every week, you’re going to get a bunch of players that want to go out there with a chip on their shoulders and want to show people who we are,” said Proehl. “I think, the past two weeks, regardless of the two losses, you saw a team that wants to play their ass off, and that’s what you saw today, and you saw that last week. We want to come out here and play hard, and I think teams are seeing that. Teams are going to start to see that each and every down, each and every play. We’re going to play hard, and they’re going to have to give us their best shot.”

Well, it sounds good, and Proehl and his teammates mean well. But to this point, sounding good and meaning well haven’t translated into actual results.

As the color commentator was wrapping up his color comments, his play-by-play man capped the conversation. “They led going into the fourth quarter!” Pasch said of the Tar Heels, in wonder. “Louisville scored the final 20 points of the game.”

That they did, and that they did.

The Cardinals earned the win. The Tar Heels? They earned a sympathy card from Greg McElroy.