Marilyn Payne

UNC struggling to play to potential, falls to 0-2

Posted September 9
Updated September 10

— The pieces are there, to hear the players tell it.

North Carolina fell to 0-2 for the first time in Larry Fedora's six seasons as head coach Saturday, losing to No. 17 Louisville 47-35. But the Tar Heels say they have everything they need to be successful. The question is whether or not UNC (0-2, 0-1 ACC) can prove that.

Defensive breakdowns continue

North Carolina's defense was, according to the unit's own preseason report, supposed to be the most consistent part of the team and the group that would be reliable in games. In Week 1: gave up three "catastrophic plays," (that's Fedora's term for plays of 20 yards or more) for touchdowns. In Week 2: gave up 27 plays of 10 yards or more.

"(It was) a lack of execution honestly," Cayson Collins said. "We had a good plan. Some of the stuff we had prepared for, they ran early in the game and then they got out of it, we had to go back to some of our base stuff."

The inability to execute comes from breakdowns in communication. Befuddled, the senior linebacker can't identify why the defensive miscommunications are happening.

Collins and Fedora insist there is nothing about the transition to John Papuchis as Gene Chizik's replacement at defensive coordinator that is causing the confusion. The muddled in-game understanding that leads to blown or missed assignments is happening on a by-play basis where on-field communications are anything but clear.

UNC started strong enough on defense against the Cardinals (2-0, 1-0 ACC). Reggie Bonnaton converted the first third-down of the day for Louisville, but Patrice Rene stopped Lamar Jackson's attempt to convert on the second try. The result: field goal, not touchdown. But it unraveled from there.

Bobby Petrino's offense adjusted, and at the end of the day, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner surely got his.

“Lamar Jackson is every bit as good as everybody says he is and thinks he is,” Fedora said.

Jackson finished with 525 yards of total offense (393 passing and 132 rushing yards), the most by any individual player ever versus the Tar Heels.

The Tar Heels surely failed to meet its "win on third downs," goal as Louisville converted nine of its 15 third downs. "We couldn't get off the field," Collins said.

The point of frustration in this first ACC loss and in the season-opening one to Cal was that the Tar Heels got beat on missed assignments on pass plays. The game plan of forcing Jackson to pass only works if UNC is on assignment. In many instances Saturday, it wasn't.

“We weren’t even close to receivers when guys are catching the ball," Fedora said. "I don’t know that you can say that’s because of Lamar Jackson. We’ve got to do a much better job on that back end. I thought our guys did a pretty good job of constricting the rush lanes and not just letting him scramble, I don’t think that that’s what beat us.

“He was able to put the ball on people that were wide open.”

The claim is that the personnel, coaches and leadership are all better than they were during a defensively-atrocious 2014 – the last season Gene Chizik WASN'T UNC's defensive coordinator – but the pieces haven't come together yet in a way that speaks to that at all that being true.

Louisville amassed 706 total offensive yards. That pretty much covers it.

Out-playing the Cardinals offense

On the other side of the ball, North Carolina's pass-catchers saw the defensive misses in the loss to Louisville as less of a major stain on the season, essentially arguing "it's Louisville, he won the Heisman." Maybe Brandon Fritts and Austin Proehl are right, they go against UNC's defense often enough to know. Or maybe there's a reason those guys play offense.

Nonetheless, the Tar Heels played a much closer game to what Fedora's offense typically looks like. Big plays abound, sort of.

UNC started things off right, answering Louisville's opening drive score with one of its own. Dazz Newsome's 54-yard catch-and-run was the first play from scrimmage and a step in the right direction, but the team finished one chunk play short of Fedora's challenge.

He asked them to get 10 pass plays of 15 yards or more in each of the first two games. They got nine on Saturday, but it was certainly an improvement.

"We all realize how big explosive plays are," Proehl said. "They move you up the field, they get the defense on their heels, you really get rolling.

"In a game like this where (Louisville is) moving up and down the field, when you hit them back with a big play, it makes them really overthink stuff."

Quarterback Chazz Surratt found out two days before the game he would start, he said. He finished 12 for 14 with 168 yards and two touchdowns, after playing the entire first half. The redshirt freshman said he was hit on his first run play of the game, and the lower right side of his back began hurting, increasing in discomfort as the half wore on. Fedora and the QB talked before the third quarter, both believed the quarterback could play but probably wouldn't be 100 percent. Enter Brandon Harris, who improved on his first week's showing by completing 17 of 23 passes for 216 yards and a score without a turnover.

Confidence was the key, and comfort, to all of the offensive improvement. Better protection from a "patchwork offensive line," better chemistry with pass catchers and improved understanding of the offense made things work Saturday.

Yet still, an L. Regardless of the fact that the offense says it wants to prove itself.

Kudos to Carolina's special teams unit which was the one area that Fedora thought did well enough to win the game. That's one third closer than in the opening week, but only time will tell if the rest of the team can live up to its own assessments and expectations.

So far, not so good.

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