CHARLOTTE, N.C. – To make a statement to the college football world, you must first make one to your own team.
North Carolina won the coin toss. And deferred. Think about that for a minute. Prolific offense. Horrific defense. And you voluntarily choose to give the opponent the football to start the season.
We’ve spent millions of words on the importance of Larry Fedora’s decision to hire Gene Chizik last January. For a fanbase desperate to grasp anything positive after the final two games of 2014, Chizik’s hire was the life preserver to many. Perhaps even Fedora’s own. And to the head coach’s credit, he gave the keys to Chizik from the start.
Fedora’s deference to Chizik isn’t new. He gave the same freedom to Vic Koenning. But this season is different. Chizik’s pedigree speaks for itself. Two national championship rings will do that.
So Thursday night in Charlotte, Fedora put the game in the hands of his defensive coordinator. By choice initially. Out of necessity eventually.
In the end, Chizik’s crew produced time and time again, giving Fedora’s offense opportunities to seize control of a game the Tar Heels desperately needed to win.
And inconceivably, the defensive effort – despite holding South Carolina to 17 points, no minor feat after last season even if you believe the Gamecock offense is marginal at best – was not enough.
Steve Spurrier began his postgame press conference by saying: “The football gods smiled on the Gamecocks tonight.” The old ball coach praised North Carolina’s defense, repeatedly giving credit to the Heels pass coverage and pressure. He had the look of a coach that knew he stole one, knew his team was ripe to be beaten yet managed a way to win. That way was finding a crack in the Tar Heel defense and gashing the Heels for 254 yards on the ground – 118 of those in the decisive fourth quarter.
Spurrier knows how to win. He’s a football coach akin to a boxer. Feel out an opponent, find a weakness, and go to work. A simple concept that his team put into effect with the game on the line. A simple concept, yes, but no simple task for many.
Two years ago, in sweltering Columbia, S.C., I wrote of the proverbial hump the Tar Heel program faces. Outside forces have provided plenty of obstacles over the past five years, but the bottom line remains, Carolina Football cannot get out of its own way.
Marquise Williams’s stat line will get the most criticism. Two endzone interceptions and another ending a drive at the South Carolina 19 will do that. Fifth-year senior quarterbacks have to be better. Period. He’d be the first to tell you that.
But consider this. Of Elijah Hood’s 139 yards rushing, none came inside the red zone. On Carolina’s last drive with first and goal at the Gamecock nine, Hood failed to touch the ball once. Williams’s play not withstanding, Hood’s absence in the end in simply baffling. And Fedora’s post game explanation even more so. With the game at hand, and virtually in hand, the Heels ran away from the one chance they had to get the job done.
Beating South Carolina would not have created seismic activity on the college football landscape. But for a fanbase starved for success - a program trying to climb out of the shadow of mediocrity - opportunities to make a statement come only so often.
In Fedora’s words, Carolina “missed an opportunity to win a football game tonight.”
In reality, for this team, and this season, the opportunity missed on Thursday night in Bank of America Stadium was much, much bigger than that.