The Tar Heels gave away their opener in what could be the turning point of the 2017 season, whichever way it turns. Consider these facts:
- The defense, with a new coordinator and two new position coaches, was supposed to be the savior of this team until the almost completely reconstructed offense could catch up. Yet, it was the “D” that cost Carolina the 35-30 loss to Pac-12 also-ran Cal Saturday at Kenan Stadium. Besides athletic interceptions by Donnie Miles and Andre Smith (one more pick than the entire 2016 season), the unit allowed 469 yards and 5 TDs.
- Not only did the defense, despite its experienced and talented secondary, also give up two back-breaking long touchdown passes and UNC’s last lead, it could not get off the field in the fourth quarter and return the ball to the offense. Cal converted 10 of 20 third- and fourth-down plays.
Now, Larry Fedora could very well have a quarterback problem when, it turns out, he may not have needed to sign graduate transfer Brandon Harris from LSU. Harris wears No. 6 and red-shirt freshman Chazz Surratt wears No. 12. Appropriately, Surrat was twice the quarterback in his first college game. Harris was not promised the job, only a chance to win it. He could end up an unhappy camper in his one last season to revitalize a college football career, if Surratt’s performance and quick emergence as a fan favorite renders him the starter and Carolina quarterback of the future. More on him later.
Cal was not the better team on the new turf at Kenan, just the smarter team under first-year coach Justin Wilcox. The Golden Bears, behind their own rookie quarterback Ross Bowers, made all the big plays they needed to take control of the game and hang on to win it, including long third-down conversions, two critical fourth downs and a surprise pass to set up the winning touchdown when UNC was clearly expecting a run.
The Tar Heels, in turn, blew coverages, missed tackles, turned the ball over three times and committed a bad targeting penalty that will resonate into this week’s game against No. 16 Louisville. On a third-down incompletion that would have forced a Cal punt, junior defensive tackle Jalen Dalton not only roughed Bowers but, after a video review, was ruled to have hit him with his helmet. Dalton was ejected for the rest of this game and the first half against Louisville.
Instead of giving up the ball, Bowers hit leading receiver Vic Wharton with a 67-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline to reduce a 10-point deficit to three a minute before halftime. Wharton, who led the Bears with five receptions for 159 yards, got free and beat the Carolina D-backs to the end zone. Cal took its first lead in the third quarter on a similar play, 54 yards from Bowers to Patrick Laird, who ran through three Tar Heels on the way to the house.
Bowers’ last of 24 completions snookered the UNC defense when the Bears seemed satisfied to run the ball and the clock. A play fake froze the linebackers and Bowers hit Wharton dragging cross the middle for 43 yards to the 4-yard line. Carolina needed to force a field goal and keep it a one-score game, but Cal ran it in three plays later for an 11-point lead. Ball game. It was the same drive in which Bowers hit Wharton on third-and-16 from his own 24 for a first down. Bowers, who passed for 364 yards and four TDs, was clearly the best quarterback on the field.
Surratt was the second best after he entered the game on Carolina’s third series. The former prep All-American and North Carolina Athlete of the Year who originally committed to Duke, looks like the kind of quarterback made for Fedora’s offense. The southpaw is a shifty runner with an accurate arm. He hit 18 of 28 passes for 161 yards and one score, ran for 66 yards and another TD; not great numbers, but far better than Harris, who started 15 games while at LSU and did not look comfortable in the Carolina offense.
Never considered a great passer, Harris proved it by throwing two picks into traffic. He played one series in the second half and could be a political problem for Fedora, who needs to settle on a quarterback if the offense is to make the quick strides necessary to avoid a disastrous season. Louisville, which barely beat Purdue Saturday, will come into Kenan angry and could embarrass the Heels. After that is a trap game at Old Dominion, an FCS power with a 68-30 record since it resumed playing football in 2009, and then Duke, which can make its season with a second straight win over its arch rival. After that, the schedule gets even tougher.
In summing up the opener, Carolina’s defense was not as good as advertised and the offense showed promise with Surratt and freshman Michael Carter, who ran for 94 yards and two touchdowns. But it does not need a quarterback controversy. Harris has been in the program for one August training camp. In two seasons so far, Surratt has had hundreds more reps in the spring and summers. He very well could be Carolina’s man under center for four years.
After one game, at least, it looks like a no brainer.