There was hope, however brief, for North Carolina early in the third quarter on Saturday night at Clemson. And then there was more of the familiar – defensive breakdown after defensive breakdown, touchdown after touchdown, futility followed by futility.
There were some penalties mixed in along the way, too, and another defeat – a 50-35 loss that seemed inevitable after the Tigers built a 20-0 lead early in the second quarter on the kind of plays Vic Koenning, UNC's defensive coordinator, must see in his bad dreams – if he's sleeping much these days.
Those plays, which continued throughout – long after the Tigers built that large early lead – doomed UNC once again, a week after the Tar Heels gave up a slew of them during a humiliating 70-41 loss at East Carolina.
“We made mistakes in the back end,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said on Saturday, speaking of many of the Tar Heels' ill-fated breakdowns in the secondary. “I mean, we just made mistakes in the back end. You're turning people free. I mean, that's just a mistake. A missed assignment.
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“I'm sure that the call had somebody covering the person. But we didn't execute it.”
And then there were the penalties. Fifteen of them for 130 yards. Personal fouls. False starts. Pass interference. There were a cornucopia of them, a veritable variety pack of plays that defied the first word of Fedora's “smart, fast, physical” mantra for his program.
“Atrocious,” Fedora said of the penalties. “I don't know what to tell you.”
There wasn't much to say, either, about defensive breakdowns that are becoming more and more familiar by the week. Last weekend, the Tar Heels set single-game school records for points, yards and first downs allowed in that loss at ECU.
The Tar Heels (2-2, 0-1 ACC) were again on the wrong side of a record-setting performance on Saturday night. Deshaun Watson, the Tigers' freshman quarterback who was making his first collegiate start, threw six touchdown passes. That set the Clemson (2-2, 1-0) single-game record and tied the ACC record.
Watson completed 27 of his 36 passes for 435 yards. Nearly from the start, he mostly had his way against UNC's beleaguered pass defense.
On Clemson's second offensive play, Watson completed a pass over the middle to Germone Hopper. He caught it, in stride, about 15 or 20 yards past the line of the scrimmage, and then he ran untouched into the end zone for a 74-yard touchdown.
“Actually there were two guys running free,” Fedora said. “He could have thrown it to either one of them and they could have pitched it back and forth to each other.”
In addition to the 74-yard touchdown pass, UNC also allowed a 50-yard touchdown pass – again from Watson to Hopper – that gave the Tigers a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. Later, there was a a 33-yard touchdown from Watson to Mike Williams, whose catch gave the Tigers a 36-14 lead midway through the third quarter, and another 33-yard touchdown pass, this one to Artavis Scott, who fought his way into the end zone after the defense had stopped him short of it.
Those touchdown passes – the ones to Williams and Scott – came after UNC generated a long touchdown of its own. Marquise Williams, the Tar Heels quarterback, completed a short pass to T.J. Thorpe early in the third quarter, and he outran the Clemson defense 41 yards for a touchdown.
The Tar Heels trailed just 22-14 at the time. After that rough start, there was hope. And then the Tar Heels defense surrendered touchdowns on three consecutive drives.
There were some positives for UNC – more than there were a week ago during that humbling loss against the Pirates. On Saturday, the Tar Heels' defense managed to play well for stretches, and stopped Clemson on three consecutive possessions in the second quarter and at the start of the third.
Offensively UNC provided an inspired effort – especially after gaining just 49 yards in the first quarter. The Tar Heels finished with 478 yards, and they executed more long plays with more regularity on Saturday than they had all season.
There was Thorpe's 41-yard touchdown, and then Ryan Switzer's first touchdown of the season, too. It came on a 75-yard pass from Williams, though Switzer did most of the work. He caught it over the middle not too far in front of the line of scrimmage and then outran everyone into the end zone.
“I just think slow starts are killing us,” Switzer, UNC's sophomore receiver, said. “And it just took a while for us to get going. Three and outs and stuff. Three and outs are really putting our defense in a bad position. So we've got to find a way, whatever it is, to come out faster and make sure it doesn't happen.”
Switzer's touchdown cut Clemson's lead to 43-28 and UNC's defense, for once, came up with a stop. But the Tar Heels punted on their next possession, and Clemson went ahead 50-28 on Watson's 5-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Leggett with about six minutes to play. That was Watson's sixth touchdown pass, which set a single-game school record.
UNC tried to come back once more, and cut Clemson's lead to 15 with Elijah Hood's 9-yard run with about five minutes to play. The Tar Heels forced a stop and Williams, who after a slow start completed 24 of his 38 attempts for 345 yards and four touchdowns, led UNC inside the Clemson 20-yard line.
Then came another penalty, though – a holding call that knocked UNC back 10 yards. Moments later, Williams threw an interception in the end zone that effectively ended the game. Afterward, he and some of his teammates tried to put a positive spin on things.
They hadn't given up, for one. They kept coming back. And they responded well, overall, to that loss last weekend at ECU. Fedora was proud of that, at least.
Yet it ended in another defeat with the same troubling elements – blown coverage that led to long touchdown plays, penalties that helped Clemson on its drives and some that hindered the Tar Heels on their own possessions.
“This is a game we thought we could win, for sure,” Jeff Schoettmer, UNC's middle linebacker, said. “We match up pretty well with Clemson. That's we thought (watching) film (on) defense, we gave up way too many big plays.”
Schoettmer was the only member of the Tar Heels defense who spoke with reporters afterward. After allowing 528 yards, though, and surrendering six touchdown passes, there wasn't a lot Schoettmer or anyone else could say to explain a defensive performance that spoke for itself, but one that also defied explanation.