Luke DeCock

UNC’s season isn’t over, but it’ll take more than words to fix it

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) warms up prior to an NCAA college football game against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) warms up prior to an NCAA college football game against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) AP

Andre Smith at least tried something different, even if it couldn’t have backfired any more spectacularly on him or North Carolina.

The UNC linebacker promised Saturday wouldn’t turn into the “Lamar Jackson Show,” only for his words to become an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“He’s not going to beat us,” Smith said Wednesday. (He did.)

“We’re just going to stop anything that he tries to do.” (They didn’t.)

“He’s not going to be able to run on us, we have everything solidified with that.” (He was, and they did not.)

It was the Lamar Jackson Show from start to finish – 525 yards of offense and six touchdowns – as Jackson set a record for yardage by an opposing player against the Tar Heels in a 47-35 Louisville win.

So not only did North Carolina fail to stop anything last year’s Heisman Trophy winner tried to do, North Carolina failed to stop what he tried to do worse than it had against any previous opponent in school history.

“I thought about what they said,” Jackson said. “And I was like, I just like to play football. And when you talk, there’s gonna be a dog fight.”

Smith, who did not meet with the media after the game, at least tried to figure out a way to stop Jackson. No one else has found an answer yet, either. When you know it’s going to take a miracle for your defense to stop Jackson, why not try Plan B when Plan A is almost certainly doomed for failure?

That’s the way many fans are probably looking at North Carolina’s season now, 0-2 after letting games against California and Louisville slip away in the fourth quarter. The reality is that as disappointing as the two losses have been, the Tar Heels aren’t dramatically far off. Donnie Miles saying he thinks the Tar Heels will still win the Coastal may be a bridge too far, and you’d think Smith’s teammates would have learned something about the danger of setting unrealistic goals, but there’s no reason to panic.

The Tar Heels were never going to be a great team, but they aren’t far off from at least being respectable. The defense has been terrible, but it has never been great in Larry Fedora’s tenure. He’s an offensive coach, and his offenses have always borne the burden of outscoring the opposition. Expecting defense to be the strength of this team – “I really did,” Fedora said – was always a sucker bet.

So the Tar Heels aren’t where they thought or hoped they would be, but they are in an entirely reasonable place. With all the turnover on offense, questions at quarterback and the departure of Gene Chizik and his magic beans on defense – what other explanation is there for what he was able to do? – it was always possible this team was going to struggle to find its footing, especially on offense, and that it would be better at the end of the year than at the start.

There were signs Saturday that it’s coming to fruition. Slowly, to be certain, but getting closer. The Tar Heels appeared to find a quarterback, only to immediately lose him to injury, only for his replacement to restate his case. If Chazz Surratt had been healthy at the end of the second half, instead of dealing with a tweaked ankle that got steadily worse, the Tar Heels might have been able to get more out of their final two drives. And Brandon Harris, who looked so lost against California, looked sharp in relief in the second half as Surratt slowly pedaled a stationary bike on the sidelines.

The Tar Heels couldn’t run the ball at all, shuffled quarterbacks unexpectedly and still led going into the fourth quarter, at which point North Carolina failed to convert two fourth-and-ones, one on the Louisville goal line, with play calls that were ripe for second-guessing, and Jackson took over and made sure Louisville won the game. As he does.

All of which has left the Tar Heels winless, looking for answers and trying to figure out where things went wrong. They’re going to have to score their way out of this, because Saturday showed they’re not going to be able to talk their way out of it.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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