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One seeming certainty coming into the 2018 North Carolina football season was that the Tar Heel offense would show significant improvement after an injury-ravaged 2017 campaign. Program insiders were optimistic about a streamlined, simplified approach that would showcase talented skill players like Anthony Ratliff-Williams and allow newcomers such as transfer running back Antonio Williams and blue-chip freshman receivers Dyami Brown and Antoine Green to have an early impact.
The first half of Saturday’s opener at California, however, marked rock bottom for offensive output in the Larry Fedora era, as the Tar Heels managed a staggeringly anemic 38 yards on 28 plays (1.4 yards per play), with nearly as many interceptions (3, one of which was returned for a touchdown) as completions (5). Carolina managed only one first down in the opening frame, and it was promptly followed by an interception on the next play.
The Tar Heel offense did show signs of life in the second half, averaging a healthy 5.8 yards per play (263 yards on 45 plays) and outscoring Cal 17–7 after the break, but it was too little, too late in the 24-17 loss in yet another disappointing opener for Fedora and UNC.
‘A MULTITUDE OF ISSUES’
Asked in Monday’s press conference to summarize his takeaways from film review, Fedora explained that there wasn’t one glaring problem but rather “a multitude of issues.”
Foremost among those issues was Carolina’s inability to threaten Cal downfield and force the Golden Bears to respect the passing game. As easy as it might be to blame the quarterback — and Elliott certainly struggled — a combination of ill-timed pressure, drops, and other miscues only made the quarterback’s job more difficult.
Ratliff-Williams, for example, dropped a sure touchdown late in the third quarter on what was perhaps Elliott’s best throw of the afternoon. After film review, Fedora blamed pressure and a lack of protection for two of Elliott’s four interceptions, observing that the offensive line also did not live up to expectations in this game.
Nevertheless, all the offseason emphasis the Carolina coaching staff placed on stretching the field and forcing defenses to respect the downfield passing attack has not yet paid off. Instead, Carolina’s best offense came in the second half after committing to make more use of Elliott’s legs in the running game. As much as that provided a late spark, the Heels simply have to find a way to improve their efficiency in the vertical passing game to prevent teams from being able to load up against the run.
DEFENSE SHOWS IMPROVEMENT
Though overshadowed by the offensive disaster, the Tar Heel defense put together perhaps its best performance in several years, holding the Bears to 3.4 yards per play and 17 offensive points despite Cal repeatedly getting short fields due to turnovers. And despite numerous three-and-outs from the offense, the defense never seemed to tire late in games as seemed to happen so often over the last couple seasons.
The Carolina defensive line dominated an experienced Cal offensive unit as the Heels finally created the kind of havoc in the backfield — four sacks and ten tackles for a loss
— that defensive coordinator John Papuchis has wanted to see since taking over before the 2017 season.
The performance of linebacker Dominique Ross was also especially encouraging, as the junior broke up four passes, showing outstanding athleticism at a position where Carolina has been vulnerable in the passing game in recent years. Ross’ emergence and ability in one-on-one pass coverage should allow an even more aggressive approach from Papuchis as the year progresses.
Ten freshmen played against Cal, though the new redshirt rule that allows freshmen to play up to four games and still redshirt means some of those that played may still wind up gaining the extra year.
One of the reasons so many freshmen played in this game was due to the eleven suspensions due to the sale of team-issued Jordan Brand gear. Senior safety Allen Artis also sat out as part of his agreement with the NCAA, which granted Artis an extra year of eligibility provided he sat out the first two games due to his having played two games in 2016.
STAT OF THE WEEK
One. Only one team in 2017 (Alabama at 4.09) gave up fewer than 4.1 yards per play against FBS competition. In other words, both the UNC (4.1 YPP) and Cal (3.4 YPP) offenses made the opposing defenses look like championship-worthy units.
Dr. Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.