COLUMBIA, S.C. — Despite the loss of its two best defensive players from a season ago, and even amid injuries that decimated its depth, North Carolina defended its defense throughout the preseason. It would be better, the Tar Heels insisted. It would allow fewer game-changing plays, they believed. Just wait and see.
The wait didnt take long. South Carolina needed three plays and 79 seconds Thursday night to prove that, maybe, UNCs defense hasnt progressed nearly as far as it thought it might have. The Gamecocks 65-yard touchdown less than two minutes into the game was the first long scoring play the Tar Heels allowed.
It wasnt the last in their 27-10 loss to sixth-ranked South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Gamecocks gained a quick 17 yards on their first two plays two runs from Mike Davis, a sophomore running back. Then came Connor Shaws 65-yard touchdown pass to Shaq Roland.
On that play, Roland ran free after Shaw executed a play-action fake. There was no safety help in the defensive backfield just wide open empty space. Roland ran into the void, past UNC cornerback Tim Scott, and caught Shaws pass in stride on his way to the end zone. Scott described it later as a messed up play.
We knew mistakes were going to be made the first game, so we didnt try to get too mad at it, Scott said. But the ones that we did mess up were game-changing so were a little frustrated about that.
The first major defensive lapse helped put the Tar Heels (0-1) in a hole early. Their final major defensive lapse helped South Carolina (1-0) put the game away. That came midway through the third quarter, after the Tar Heels had cut the Gamecocks lead to 20-10.
UNC had hope then, however slim, that it might be able to come back. Instead, it surrendered a 75-yard touchdown run by Davis, who broke through a hole on the right side, eluded a couple of defenders and sprinted past the Tar Heels on his way to the end zone. The touchdown gave South Carolina a 27-10 lead.
Davis long run, and Rolands catch before it, were exactly the kind of plays UNC has tried to so hard to defend.
We worked a lot on eliminating big plays and limiting big plays, UNC coach Larry Fedora said. And you cant give up two big plays like that. You cant do that, you cant drop a punt at the 50-yard line. You cant do a lot of things that we did. But yeah those were disappointing.
Both plays represented a microcosm of the night for the UNC defense, which rarely generated pressure and routinely allowed receivers to run open. The Tar Heels offense eventually settled in and completed a couple of long scoring drives that provided hope however brief.
At the start, though, UNCs ineffectiveness on offense buoyed South Carolina, which scored on its first three possessions. The Gamecocks settled for a 39-yard field goal on their second drive a moral victory for the UNC defense but South Carolina needed just seven plays and a little more than three minutes to score another touchdown just before the end of the first quarter.
That one came on a 29-yard pass from Dylan Thompson, South Carolinas second quarterback, to Kane Whitehurst. He wasnt quite as open as Roland was on the Gamecocks first touchdown, but Whitehurst still had plenty of room thanks to another Tar Heels defensive breakdown.
By then South Carolina led 17-0. At the end of the first quarter, the Gamecocks had outgained UNC 203 yards to 35. South Carolina had nine first downs in the first quarter to the Tar Heels one, and the Gamecocks averaged nearly a first down on each of their 22 plays in the first quarter.
That North Carolina trailed by so much so early wasnt necessarily a surprise. South Carolina, after all, entered the season with its highest preseason ranking in school history, and plenty of questions surrounded the Tar Heels. What was a surprise, though, was the dominance of South Carolinas offense.
The Gamecocks entered the season with a new starter at running back and uncertainty at receiver. But at times, yards and points came easily against the Tar Heels.
The Tar Heels, at times, matched their defensive struggles of a season ago. In 2012, there were easily identifiable reasons for UNCs deficiencies. Injuries. The natural difficulties that come with learning a new playbook, in this case a 4-2-5 defense that can be complicated.
UNC players and coaches insisted that now, the Tar Heels better understood the scheme. They were playing faster, Fedora said, and that was because they better understood.
Thats not often how it looked Thursday.
I think we had a chance to make a lot of plays, said Norkeithus Otis, UNCs junior bandit. We just didnt make them.
By the time Davis ran into the end zone after his 75-yard run, the Gamecocks had amassed 335 yards, and 140 of them came on the two long touchdown plays. After a 104-minute lightning delay that halted the game with 8 minutes, 20 seconds to play, South Carolina, which punted just once before that delay, finished with 406 yards 228 of them rushing yards.
The defense wasnt solely responsible for the defeat. There was blame to go around from T.J. Thorpes fumbled punt return in the second quarter, to the offenses inability to score a touchdown after having first-and-goal on the 6 in the third quarter.
Defensive deficiencies, though, were perhaps the most glaring of the Tar Heels problems. Players and coaches spent weeks promising a new beginning, a fresh start. Things would be different, they said. In the first game of a new season, though, familiar problems persisted.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter