ATLANTA -- The lights may have been a bit brighter than expected.
The crowd noise was certainly louder than expected, and Georgia running back Nick Chubb was probably more bruising than expected.
Whatever the reason, No. 22 North Carolina faltered once again on its primetime stage on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, not unlike its season opener against South Carolina a year ago. The Tar Heels lost for the ninth consecutive time in a season opener against a Power 5 conference opponent, and for the fifth consecutive time on a neutral field against a Power 5 opponent.
UNC built a 24-14 lead midway through the third quarter before a series of miscues sparked a 19-0 Bulldog run over the final 16:19 of play.
“We just made too many mistakes, and you can't do that against a good opponent,” Larry Fedora told reporters after the game. “You can't do that nowadays against anybody and have success.”
There were questionable play calls, such as UNC electing to throw the ball on three consecutive plays from the 5-yard-line just before halftime instead of handing off to All-ACC running back Elijah Hood. Fedora explained that decision by indicating that Georgia was set defensively to stop the run. The Tar Heels settled for a field goal and a 14-10 halftime deficit.
There were 13 penalties that resulted in 101 yards of real estate. Some of which were mental errors, such as Ryan Switzer moving forward while in motion to draw a false start flag, and others were the result of coaching strategy, such as UGA offensive coordinator Jim Chaney picking on true freshman cornerback Patrice Rene for a pair of pass interference calls.
“Penalties can win or loss games sometimes,” junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “Obviously, in the first game you want to eliminate as many penalties as you possibly can. The penalties we got tonight were pretty crucial.”
The game slipped from UNC’s control during a stretch of plays late in the third quarter. The Rene pass interference calls set up the Bulldogs inside the Tar Heels’ 30-yard-line, and four plays later UGA quarterback Jacob Eason connected with Isaiah McKenzie for a 17-yard touchdown pass play.
On the ensuing possession, Khris Francis failed to secure the kickoff properly, thereby pinning UNC at its 12. With the partisan Georgia Dome crowd sensing a turning point, the arena grew deafening, and on 2nd-and-10, right tackle Jon Heck was flagged for a questionable ineligible receiver downfield penalty. Fedora argued the call and promptly drew an unsportsmanlike conduct whistle.
“The guy didn't like what I said so he threw a flag on me, which that's nobody's fault but mine,” Fedora said. “It's my fault. That's the first time that's ever happened in my life.”
Facing 2nd-and-18 from his own 4-yard-line, Trubisky moved left to avoid pressure and dumped it off to Elijah Hood, who was tackled in the end zone for a safety. UNC’s 10-point lead had been whittled down to one point and its momentum was gone.
“I was trying to burn the ball away,” Trubisky said. “I should have thrown it at Elijah’s feet, but he actually made a pretty good catch. I was hoping he’d just drop it so we could punt it.”
Hood told reporters that he had his back turned on the play, and once he realized his quarterback was throwing him the ball, his football instincts kicked in and he made the catch. It was only after that fact that Hood realized he must have drifted back into the end zone and was susceptible for a safety.
“I wasn’t supposed to catch it, though,” Hood said. “I know that.”
After running through and around UNC’s defense all night long, Chubb capped his 222-yard, two-touchdown night with a 55-yard scoring run off the right side to push Georgia’s lead to 33-24 with 3:34 to play.
Gene Chizik called an all-out blitz and Chaney countered with a sweep right, cementing another game of futility for the Tar Heels in their efforts to stop the run. Junior defensive tackle Nazair Jones described the play as a “good call against a bad call.”
UNC has allowed 1,567 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns over its last four games.
“We didn’t get the job done,” Jones said. “They had like 300 yards, so we’ve got a lot of things to fix.”
The Tar Heel offense deserves just as much blame for the loss. Despite averaging 8.4 yards per carry, Hood and T.J. Logan combined for 16 rushing attempts. Trubisky, in his first career start, completed 24-of-40 passes for 156 yards without a touchdown.
“There were a couple of times I left the pocket and I didn’t need to,” Trubisky said. “And there other times when I should have taken off with the ball down the field. It’s just something I’m going to have to learn from, experience-wise. Look at all the film and improve. Did some good things, did some bad things, just got to learn from them.”
Fedora admitted his surprise that his veteran team would be so error-prone and inconsistent in this type of contest. His players were at a loss as well, suggesting possible first-game jitters or attempts to do too much on an individual basis.
“We understand the mistakes we made, and frankly, that we didn’t do the things that we needed to do to get the job done,” Hood said. “We’re going to go back, look at the film and fix those mistakes and work on the things that hurt us a lot, the inconsistency, the penalties, the mental errors.
“We’ve got to cut those out if we want to win big-time games.”null