North Carolina began its season on Saturday with a 35-30 defeat against California at Kenan Stadium, but the Tar Heels really began it, before a result that could be a harbinger of bad things to come, with questions aplenty.
Questions at quarterback, and at running back, and at receiver. Questions about whether the defense, long the supporting actor during Larry Fedora’s coaching tenure, could emerge from the shadows and excel in a leading role. There are answers now, at least, though not the kind UNC hoped to discover.
“And it doesn’t get any easier,” one Tar Heels’ assistant coach, sounding beleaguered, said as he exited Kenan Stadium about an hour after a debacle-filled debut ended.
That it does not. The Tar Heels’ season-opener against Cal, a team that went 5-7 last season, and one with a new coaching staff and many of the same questions that UNC faced, was supposed to be one of UNC’s less challenging tests amid a schedule that now looks significantly more daunting than it did on Saturday morning.
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The Tar Heels entered its first game as a double-digit favorite, even with all of their unknowns. They departed Saturday afternoon, in the aftermath, a shaken bunch, one beset by letdowns on defense, supposedly a strength, and offensive inefficiency.
About those answers: UNC used a two-quarterback system, rotating Brandon Harris, the graduate transfer from LSU, and Chazz Surratt, the second-year freshman and former high school All-American from tiny Denver, N.C. Surratt thrived, at times, while Harris labored, and neither quarterback sounded all too excited about rotating with the other.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever been a part of it,” said Harris, before adding that he was “going to have to find a way” to succeed in such an arrangement. He completed 7 of his 16 attempts for 60 yards, but threw two interceptions and didn’t play after the second of those, which came in the third quarter.
Surratt, meanwhile, completed 18 of his 28 attempts for 161 yards and a touchdown. He played with polish and poise, at times, and yet this, too, was only his first game – and it came with the kind of mistakes and misreads, including a critical one on fourth down in the fourth quarter, that are to be expected, perhaps, in a college debut.
Had the quarterback rotation made it more difficult for him to find a rhythm?
“You could say that,” Surratt said afterward. “It’s not something that me and Brandon are used to.”
Fedora, whose team lost an opening game against a major conference opponent for the fourth time in his six seasons at UNC, didn’t provide any insight afterward about whether the quarterback rotation might continue beyond Saturday. He has other concerns.
Like, for instance, a defense that surrendered touchdowns of 67, 54 and 20 yards. One of those – the 67-yard touchdown pass from Ross Bowers to Vic Wharton III, came moments after Jalen Dalton, the UNC defensive tackle, rammed his helmet into Bowers’ facemask, giving Cal a first down after it failed to convert a third-and-long.
Dalton, called for a targeting penalty on the play, was ejected. He walked off the field either grinning or grimacing but, either way, it was a play that seemed to turn the game. UNC led 17-7 at the time. Cal outscored the Tar Heels 28-7 until UNC scored a meaningless touchdown on the game’s final play.
“We expect our guys to play smart,” Fedora said of Dalton’s penalty and, indeed, “smart” is the first word of Fedora’s slogan for this program: “Smart. Fast. Physical.”
And yet the Tar Heels lacked all those attributes in various moments on Saturday. The receivers, for instance, were rarely fast enough to earn separation from the defense. UNC’s defensive line lacked the physicality to get around an offensive line that entered Saturday with the second-fewest returning starts in the country.
That the offense faltered in stretches wasn’t necessarily a surprise, given everything that UNC lost from a season ago, including quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the second selection in the NFL draft. UNC’s defense, though, embraced its opportunity to shine, at last – and then allowed 469 yards and 6.4 yards per play against a Cal offense that also endured significant attrition. The Golden Bears lost their starting quarterback, their top running back and two of their best receivers.
They didn’t seem to miss any of them at Kenan Stadium, though, where Cal’s 35 points were the most UNC surrendered in a season-opening defeat since 1984. One of UNC’s most important defensive statistics is limiting the number of the opposition’s “explosive” plays – those the UNC coaching staff defines as at least a 12-yard run or 15-yard pass. UNC allowed nine such plays on Saturday.
“That’s not who we’re going to be,” Fedora said, defiantly. “We’re not going to give up big plays. Unfortunately that’s what happened, and we have to find out why.”
The proclivity for allowing the big play was especially disturbing for the Tar Heels given their defensive experience. All three of their starting linebackers started last season, as well. The defensive secondary brought back most of its most important contributors, as did the defensive line.
In its first game under a new coaching staff Cal, though, used the element of surprise and “did some stuff we didn’t expect,” said Andre Smith, the Tar Heels’ middle linebacker.
He provided UNC’s most significant defensive highlight – an interception that he returned 73 yards to set up a Tar Heels touchdown late in the third quarter. At the time, they led 24-21, but the Golden Bears used two touchdown drives, both methodical affairs that spanned at least 70 yards, to build a 35-24 lead with less than two minutes remaining.
“We obviously just beat ourselves,” Smith said, speaking mostly about the defense. “Every time they scored, it was a self-inflicted wound. I mean, they made some great plays – shout out to Cal – but we really shot ourselves in the foot a lot of times.”
That was UNC’s refrain afterward: that it made easily-correctable mistakes. That if not for those, things might have been OK. Fedora spoke of “too many mistakes” and “too many opportunities that we gave up” and said it was “pretty simple” why the Tar Heels didn’t win.
The question now is how quickly those problems can be addressed, if at all. UNC’s game next week, against Louisville, looked like one of the team’s most daunting entering the season. And all of a sudden, after losing a game the Tar Heels expected to win, the rest of the schedule looks no easier, either.
UNC entered the season with more questions than any of Fedora’s other five teams. The answers it discovered on Saturday provided little comfort. The Tar Heels learned only that they have a long road ahead, and that their margin for error appears smaller than they might have anticipated.