CHARLOTTE — This one will sting for a while. North Carolina fans, foaming at the mouth since the winter when Gene Chizik was hired as the defensive coordinator, could not wait to see the new and improved Heels.
Except for one 44-yard run in the fourth quarter, UNC didn’t surrender many big plays. On the opening night of college football, with the world watching, it was the UNC offense that failed them in a 17-13 loss to South Carolina.
North Carolina (0-1) senior quarterback Marquise Williams threw three interceptions, two in the redzone, on an off night in the return to his home town. Williams, thought to be the bright spot coming into the contest, finished 19-31 with 232 yards, but only one touchdown – a 21-yard strike to Bug Howard in the first quarter. But, he threw his first interception on the opening drive, and another on the Heels’ final drive of the night, trailing by four on fourth down.
The real head scratcher was why Williams was throwing the ball on fourth down in the first place. Sophomore running back Elijah Hood, another Charlotte native, was averaging 11 yards per carry, and his last touch went for 29 yards to the South Carolina 23. It wasn’t his last touch because the game was over, but because Hood, who finished with 138 yards, watched the next seven plays from the sidelines. North Carolina passed the ball on six of those seven plays, including a third and goal from the three, where Williams took a sack. On fourth down, Williams threw an interception right into the hands of Gamecocks’ linebacker Skai Moore, who also intercepted a Williams pass in the first quarter.
The Carolina defense, one of the worst in the country last season, was better. They tackled better, appeared more physical, and didn’t display the blown assignments that plagued them a year ago. They held the Gamecocks scoreless in the first and third quarter, and only gave up 5.3 yards per play. But what UNC needed on this night was a big night from its biggest star, Williams, who put all the blame on himself after the contest.
Williams was as poised as you expect from a senior on the his first two drives, going 4-7 with one score and the ill-advised pick by Moore. But at times he looked hesitate to run when he had opportunities. At times, he threw the ball high (twice to Ryan Switzer) or behind his wideouts – a couple of instances to Howard.
But North Carolina still had a chance. Facing 4th and 1 from the UNC 12, South Carolina elected to go for it instead of kicking the field goal. Quarterback Perry Orth was stopped cold by UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer, giving the ball back to the Heels with 8:56 remaining. The Heels worked the ball into the redzone, thanks to two long passes from Williams to Howard and Mack Hollins, and a long run by Hood, but stalled after that.
GAME CHANGER – Carolina had the ball in the redzone with less than one minute remaining. Down by three, the coaches called a pass play on third and goal instead of giving the ball to tailback Elijah Hood, who was averaging 11.5 yards per carry. Williams was sacked on third down, then threw an interception – his third of the night – on fourth down.
STICK WITH IT – If you’re South Carolina, the Wildcat was a blessing offensively. South Carolina first-year starter Conner Mitch was struggling earlier at the quarterback position. So Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier went with the Wildcat formation early, giving the ball to super athlete Pharoh Cooper. If you’re the Tar Heels it’s simple, give the ball to Hood, who averaged 11.5 yards per carry. Also, keep getting the ball to 6’5 wide receiver Bug Howard, who had a career-high 114 yards receiving.
GET RID OF IT – Whatever the UNC offensive goal line package is, somebody should throw it out the window riding back up Interstate 85 to Chapel Hill. No need to get cute, on third and goal, give the ball to your back who is averaging a first down per touch.
NUMBERS DON’T LIE:
254 – South Carolina’s rushing total. The Gamecocks had seven players tote the mail, averaging 5.4 per carry. The team who can control the ground, normally can win the game.
35:38 – Time of possession for South Carolina. The UNC defense was on the field way too long, and it seemed to finally catch up with them late in the contest, when the Gamecocks picked up chunks of yards on the ground and the Heels started to miss tackles.
3-0 – Number of turnovers South Carolina forced, compared to the number UNC forced. Pretty much sums things up.
Hood, UNC – Career-high 138 yards on 12 carries on return to his hometown.
Howard, UNC – Career-high 114 yards receiving and one score.
Cooper, South Carolina – Did it all for the Gamecocks, caught three passes for 45 yards and one score, carried the ball four times and even threw one pass out of the Wildcat formation.
Moore, South Carolina – Finished with 10 tackles to go along with his two interceptions.
Jeff Schoettmer, UNC – Senior linebacker finished with 12 tackles, including a big stop on Mitch on a 4th and 1 in the second half.
LOOKING AHEAD – North Carolina returns to Chapel Hill for its home opener versus North Carolina A&T at 6 p.m. in Kenan Stadium. Aggies’ head coach Rod Broadway is a graduate of UNC and also a former assistant coach.