COLUMBIA, S.C. — When they spoke in public, at least, North Carolina players and coaches did so with confidence and optimism. The Tar Heels believed they were ready to travel to No. 6 South Carolina on Thursday night, and coach Larry Fedora expressed hope about a game he described last week as a “measuring stick.”
“They’re ready to hit somebody else,” Fedora said days before his team traveled to Columbia, S.C., “and really find out who the 2013 Tar Heels are.”
UNC will forge that identity over the course of 12 games – perhaps more. The Tar Heels’ 27-10 defeat Thursday night against the Gamecocks proved UNC has a ways to travel before becoming the kind of team Fedora hopes it can be – and believes it can be.
Fedora and his staff likely knew that much before Thursday night. What transpired inside Williams-Brice Stadium only offered further proof. The Tar Heels faltered on defense, where they surrendered two long touchdowns. Offensively, they struggled in the red zone. And a key turnover on special teams erased momentum.
“We’ve still got a long way to go – a lot of work to do,” Fedora, in his second season at UNC, said Thursday night. “We’re in year two, and I wish we were farther along than we are, but we’re not. That was a good measuring stick for us. I don’t look at tonight and say, ‘Gosh, we’re so far away we’ll never make it.’ ”
The journey could be a long one, though. When Fedora arrived in December 2012, he inherited a roster with professional talent at the top but one that also lacked depth. That might remain an issue for a while – especially on defense, which suffered a deluge of preseason injuries.
Before a long weather delay interrupted play in the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels’ defense had forced just two punts. And T.J. Thorpe, a UNC sophomore playing in his first game since 2011, fumbled one of them, allowing South Carolina to recover possession and momentum.
The Tar Heels’ defense forced another stop after that, but its failures were magnified. South Carolina turned one of those failures into a 65-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the game. UNC defended another play poorly in the third quarter, and Gamecocks running back Mike Davis escaped down the right side for a 75-yard touchdown.
“You take away the big plays … it’s a different game,” UNC senior defensive end Kareem Martin said. “The offense was finally getting their groove. Big plays are usually all things that we did wrong, and I think that after we look at this film we’ll definitely improve.”
Martin and his teammates often said that last season, too, when defensive failures allowed game-winning drives in losses against Duke and Wake Forest. Throughout the preseason, the Tar Heels insisted they better understood their 4-2-5 defensive scheme. The increased understanding, they said, would result in fewer breakdowns.
UNC’s failures Thursday might have been mostly attributable to South Carolina’s superiority. UNC simply didn’t measure up to the faster, stronger, more physically dominant Gamecocks.
“We played a really good football team tonight – the No. 6 team in the country,” Fedora said when he first walked in a room to greet reporters. “They’ve got some really good players. … And we didn’t play the way we wanted to play, obviously.”
UNC’s three best players from a season ago are in the NFL. Guard Jonathan Cooper and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams became first-round NFL draft picks. Giovani Bernard, one of the most productive running backs in school history, went in the second round.
The Tar Heels aren’t without talent, but their margin for error is smaller – perhaps nonexistent – against a team like South Carolina. The defensive breakdowns were one reason for UNC’s demise Thursday. Thorpe’s fumble was another. And then there was UNC’s inefficiency inside the Gamecocks’ 20-yard line. Of UNC’s three trips to the red zone, only one ended with a touchdown.
“We looked really good at some points and had great drives and just couldn’t finish them,” UNC quarterback Bryn Renner said. “Definitely consistency tonight was not there, and you can’t make many mistakes against the No. 6 team.”
The good news for the Tar Heels, at least, is that Thursday’s game likely will be the most difficult one they play all season. None of UNC’s remaining opponents is ranked.
Still, that might be of little consolation to Fedora and his staff, which is attempting to build UNC into the kind of nationally recognized team it played against to start the season. The Tar Heels spoke with optimism about the opportunity to measure themselves, and then they received a humbling lesson.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter