Put the blame on D: UNC knows where it must improve
Posted September 2
Updated September 3
Chapel Hill, N.C. — North Carolina lost its third straight season opener Saturday, 35-30 to California (1-0), but Larry Fedora finally got to see his quarterbacks play live ball.
Graduate transfer Brandon Harris was the first QB to step on the field, then Chazz Surratt took over on the third Carolina drive, following the plan set out at the beginning of game week.
"He told me that I would come in on the third series and (Harris) would start the game," Surratt said. "From there, we’d just roll and see how the team is playing.”
The redshirt freshman couldn't remember if he had his conversation with Fedora on Monday or Tuesday, but the former LSU Tiger recalled his separate conversation with the coach clearly.
“He told me Monday,” Harris said. “He didn’t explain (Surratt’s) role to me. I didn’t challenge him on it because that’s not me as a player. He’s the head coach, and that’s how it went. He said, ‘You’re taking the first snap’ and that there was potential for Chazz to play.
"I didn’t know what that role was, I didn’t know it was defined."
Harris managed just seven snaps for three yards of total offense on his first two drives. On the third drive, Jordon Brown took a handoff from Surratt and converted the Denver, NC, native's second play for a first down. The drive stalled from there, but that small spark was enough to convince Fedora to give Surratt another shot.
“(Surratt) was really poised throughout the game. He handled the situation very well," Fedora said. "I never saw him panic. He took the ball where it was supposed to go based on what the coverage dictated. He didn’t make all great throws, but I thought the kid was doing a great job.”
Cal scored on its ensuing possession, but the decision to add true freshman tailback Michael Carter to the field helped make the decision to go back to Surratt look like the right one. Carter took two handoffs a total of 55 yards, then scored a two-yard touchdown on his third carry in a college football game, tying the game 7-7.
Without a doubt, Carter was the breakout player of the game for UNC. The rookie doesn't run like one: he hits holes hard and finds space on the field where there is very little. The Carter who showed up at Kenan Stadium for the game is the same guy Fedora saw in the stadium in practice and admits it's nice for a freshman to be able to transition into live play without a hiccup or nerves.
“It felt like high school, it felt like youth league, it felt like always," Carter said of his college debut. "Football’s football: the creases are the same creases, the hash marks are the same hash marks. The concepts are the same. It felt good to play.”
Fedora's decision to rely on the run game was based on what the Golden Bears' defense did.
“Going into the game, we said we want to be effective running the football," Fedora said. "I don’t know that we were not as effective as we wanted to be early on, but eventually the guys settled down and found the seams we wanted to find.”
“The way (Cal) was playing, they had their Will and their Sam (linebackers) locked up on the line of scrimmage, " Surratt said. "So whenever we saw that look, we were anticipating them coming hard and pitching it off when we had green grass.”
Surratt's second drive was fruitless after Carter fumbled, and UNC went back to Harris. The Tar Heels picked up three first downs on the drive (converting two third downs in a row with passes to tight end Brandon Fritts and wide receiver Austin Proehl). Harris' third drive ended in a 39-yard field goal and UNC's first lead, 10-7.
Donnie Miles ended Cal's ensuing drive with his first career interception and set up Carolina's second TD of the day, a nine-yard run by Carter.
According to Cal QB Ross Bowers, the momentum shifted on the next drive when Jalen Dalton was flagged for roughing the passer, then ejected on the next play. The Golden Bears were set to punt the ball, but the targeting penalty allowed another play. It went 67 yards for a score, and Cal pulled to within three, 17-14.
“I’m really glad he hit me high, because that gave us a lot of momentum," Bowers said. "That was on third down and we had an incompletion, so he really saved our drive with that."
North Carolina got the ball back with 1:08 left in the half, and Fedora's signature play calling showed up in the two-minute drill. Harris threw five straight passes (one incompletion and four completions, including two to Austin Proehl for first downs) before being intercepted to end the half.
"I was definitely a little surprised that I wasn’t used more. I thought I would be utilized in a lot more ways than I was, but I trust our coaching staff to make the right decisions," Proehl, who finished the game with just four catches, said. "Th(at) drive doesn’t matter, but for experience.”
Cal burnt UNC again for the first score of the second half, taking advantage of blown coverage to take the lead on a 54-yard catch-and-run. Although a second interception (by Andre Smith) set up UNC re-taking the lead, back-to-back touchdowns and a clock-eating final Cal drive sealed things for the visitors, proving that UNC's strength may still be what it's always been just as its liability is.
“I put all the weight (of the loss) on the defense. We have to come back out and do a better job for the offense," linebacker Andre Smith said. "They put up enough points and that’s all it is.”
A junior, Smith defended a younger offense saying, "They played their a**es off," and that the offense shocked people by being productive. In particular, Carter felt that the ground game was able to play with nothing to lose because of being "written off" already.
Smith and Carter both referenced Roy Williams coming to speak to the football team and reading something "from the media" that emphasized how UNC only returned one percent of its rushing production from last season.
UNC finished the game with 219 rushing yards on 45 run plays and 221 passing yards on 44 pass attempts, executing the epitome of a balanced offense. Surratt finished 18-for-28 with 161 passing yards and one passing and one rushing TD. Harris was 7-f0r-16 with two interceptions and Carter rushed for 94 yards alone, but the Tar Heels gave up 469 yards to the Bears, including three chunk or explosive plays (20 yards, 67 yards and 54 yards) for touchdowns.
Even when the emphasis of the preseason is on finding who will best produce for the Tar Heels offense, the defense admits it failed to hold up its end of the bargain again.