Fedora: ‘We just have to execute’
North Carolina’s offense focused on red-zone efficiency during the offseason. The defense emphasized limiting big plays and tackling in space, which were constant problems a year ago.
All those things came back to bite the Tar Heels during a crucial sequence in Thursday’s 27-10 season-opening loss at No. 6 South Carolina.
Down 20-7 at the half, UNC started the third quarter with a 17-play, 67-yard drive and had second-and-goal from the 2. But instead of a touchdown that would have brought the Tar Heels within one score, UNC had to settle for a 20-yard field goal.
Then on South Carolina’s first snap of the second half, the Gamecocks put the game away with a 75-yard touchdown run by Mike Davis, who broke through a tackle attempt by Jabari Price and outran UNC’s secondary down the home sideline.
It was the third big play allowed by the Tar Heels’ defense. USC scored on a 65-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the game when Tim Scott allowed Shaq Roland to get behind him on a post route with no safety help.
Later in the first quarter, Kane Whitehurst was open in the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown that put the Gamecocks up 17-0.
“We knew mistakes were going to be made the first game, so we didn’t try and get too mad at it,” Scott said. “But the one’s that we did mess up were game-changers, so we’re a little frustrated about that. We have a lot to work on this week.”
The offense did score a touchdown on its first trip into the red zone, but then failed in six plays from the 2-yard line, including a last-ditch effort late in the game.
Partly as a result, the Tar Heels ran 79 plays — four more than its average from 2012 — but were held to less than 27 points for the second time in Coach Larry Fedora’s 13 games at the helm.
“We really had some bad moments in really critical times,” left tackle James Hurst said. “We’ve got to improve our red-zone efficiency, no doubt.”
It’s almost certain that UNC won’t face a better team than South Carolina this season — the Tar Heels don’t have another team on the schedule that is ranked — but Fedora said the caliber of opponent wasn’t the only reason for the lack of success Thursday.
“If we executed like that, it’s not going to matter for us; we don’t have a chance,” Fedora said. “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.”
Despite being outplayed, there were some positives for the Tar Heels.
Junior bandit Norkeithus Otis had five solo tackles in his first start, including UNC’s lone sack and two tackles for loss. The offense didn’t commit a turnover (though the defense didn’t force one, either), and running backs Romar Morris and A.J. Blue averaged 4.6 yards a carry (23 rushes for 106 yards) while replacing departed star Giovani Bernard.
And in the most high-profile matchup of his career, Hurst held South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to three tackles and three quarterback hurries, helped by an offensive line that included two freshmen starters and a gameplan that included plenty of quick throws.
“I didn’t want him to touch the quarterback,” Hurst said. “That was my goal. I didn’t want him to harm our quarterback, and I’m happy about that.”
But in the end, UNC still was outplayed in all three phases of the game by its border rival.
“We’re only in year two,” Fedora said. “I wish we were further along than we are, but we’re not. It was a good measuring stick for us. I don’t look at tonight and say, ‘Gosh, we’re so far away, we’ll never make it.’ That’s not the way I’m coming out of the game. I just don’t think we’re that far away. We just have to execute.”