CHARLOTTE, N.C. – This story should be about North Carolina’s defensive stand on South Carolina’s 12-yard-line, trailing by four points with under nine minutes to play.
The lede should be about senior Jeff Schoettmer laying a hit on Gamecocks quarterback Perry Orth on 4th-and-1 and how that one play offered a touch of redemption, however slight, for the embarrassment that was 2014.
If Orth picks up the first down, the Gamecocks likely have a 1st-and-goal and an opportunity to cement a season-opening victory, but that didn’t happen. Schoettmer delivered his crushing hit not 30 seconds after defensive tackle Jeremiah Clarke made a similar effort against running back David Williams on 3rd-and-1.
Instead, the focal point shifts to an underwhelming performance by the offense after an offseason spent touting its talent and experience. UNC returned 10 starters, including all five offensive linemen and an All-ACC quarterback in Marquise Williams, setting up the potential for a breakout season as long as the defense made significant strides under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
The latter held true on Thursday at Bank of America Stadium, for at least one game. UNC held the Gamecocks to 17 points despite giving up 394 yards. The offense, however, scored just 13 points despite gaining 440 yards and averaging 7.0 yards-per-play.
“It’s just not acceptable with what we have returning on offense,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said after the game.
The Tar Heels tallied 273 of those yards on 11 explosive plays.
Those were the high points, along with Elijah Hood’s career-high 138 rushing yards. Why he was absent for most of UNC’s final red zone push is another question.
Williams, who entered Thursday’s opener with 20 red zone touchdowns against zero interceptions for his career, threw three picks in the red zone, each a bad decision. The fifth-year senior, playing in front of his home crowd, finished the night 19-of-31 for 232 yards and a touchdown to counter the trio of turnovers. South Carolina’s defensive game plan stymied Williams’s ability to use his legs to make the offense more dynaminc, holding him to nine yards on 10 carries, including four sacks.
“Sometimes you don’t really know what the answer is,” Williams said. “Sometimes I feel like was trying to be the hero, but then next time I just didn’t know what I could do. And on the last play I was just trying to find a man and he just happened to be right there again. I’m going to bounce back, and just have a positive energy about this and move forward.”
Williams, along with most observers of Thursday’s game, was surprised at his offense’s futility.
“We’re a team that likes to score 40, and we were down there three or four times and we didn’t execute and got field goals,” he said. “That comes back to haunt you. We’ve got to get touchdowns, and we didn’t get any touchdowns. That goes back to me just not being careful with the football and just throwing it out there.”
UNC’s defensive roster kept its offense within striking distance until one final interception in the red zone with under four minutes to play. This story should have been about them.