The effort was there this time, and no North Carolina player mentioned anything about his teammates quitting, and the Tar Heels scored often, too. Those were the positives, and the things UNC tried to focus on, after another dispiriting loss Saturday night.
This one, though, ended more closely than it seemed it might. Early in the second quarter Clemson led by 20 points, and the people who gathered at Memorial Stadium – a crowd of nearly 80,000, most dressed in orange – created a deafening roar. Earlier, Marquise Williams, the UNC quarterback, said he felt the ground shake.
“I stepped out on the first drive, I said, ‘This is not real,’ ” Williams said.
It was, though. And not long after the start of the game, the Tar Heels trailed 7-0. And then 10-0. And then, before long, it was 20-0 with 9 minutes, 47 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Perhaps the best thing that could be said about the Tar Heels after their 50-35 defeat was that they didn’t quit right then, trailing by 20 points with so much time left and with the memory of the week before – a humbling 70-41 loss at East Carolina – still so fresh.
UNC came back. Williams, after a dreadful start, and after allowing the moment and the atmosphere to overcome him, came back.
The Tar Heels trailed 22-14 early in the third quarter and, even though their defense rarely stopped the Tigers, UNC’s offense kept scoring – trading touchdowns with Clemson throughout the second half. So there was that, if coach Larry Fedora was looking for positives – and he likely was.
“We had guys that fought the whole game,” Fedora said. “We had guys that were busting their rear ends the whole game, and there was no lack of confidence or anything like that. These guys had plenty of fight in them, and they fought the whole way.
“And when we gave up a play or didn’t make a play or we were frustrated, they just kept fighting.”
Fedora appreciated that much. There were plenty of positives, too, on offense.
The Tar Heels gained a season-high 478 yards Saturday, and their per-play average of 6.05 yards was their second-best output in four games. At last, there were more of the kind of long, momentum-swinging moments Fedora’s offenses are known for: the 41-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Thorpe; the 75-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Switzer.
Both receivers did most of the work themselves, turning short passes into long plays and outrunning the defense. The long touchdown plays involving Thorpe and Switzer offer hope that those moments can be repeated.
“We played well enough to win the game offensively,” Switzer said. “So those are some things that we can build on.”
The Tar Heels’ problems on defense, though, continue to overshadow all that is right – or at least closer to right – on the team. UNC wasn’t as abysmal defensively Saturday as it was at East Carolina, but it was far from good, or even average.
The Tar Heels gave up touchdown plays of 74, 50 and 33 yards. And then, after allowing Clemson’s first 33-yard touchdown play, UNC surrendered another on the Tigers’ next drive.
No team from a power five conference is allowing more yards per game (543) and yards per play (6.62) than UNC. Those two 33-yard touchdowns – both passes from Deshaun Watson, the Tigers’ freshman quarterback who in his first start tied an ACC record with six touchdown passes – negated any kind of momentum UNC had created with its offensive success.
“We made a few things happen,” Fedora said. “But we just didn’t make enough happen.”
Sometimes, UNC made the wrong things happen, too. Like when the Tar Heels tackled players out of bounds, resulting in personal foul penalties. Or when a defensive back collided with a receiver, resulting in pass interference.
Fedora has stressed the importance of reducing penalties, and he already was displeased with his team’s progress there before Saturday. And then came 15 more penalties, for 130 yards, against Clemson. Fedora said that was “atrocious.”
“We got to get it corrected,” he said. “I mean, 15 penalties is ridiculous.”
At least there was this, though: When UNC wasn’t allowing a long passing play, and when it wasn’t committing a penalty, many of which proved costly, there were some things to like. At least, more of those things than there had been the week before at East Carolina.
The question now is whether the Tar Heels can build on those positives and reduce their mistakes, or whether their many faults – their inability to defend against the pass, and their inability to stay out of their own way and stop committing penalties – will continue to doom them. UNC did answer one question, about its character, in the affirmative on Saturday. The Tar Heels didn’t quit.
“That’s what I love about this team,” said Williams, who passed for 345 yards and four touchdowns. “We’re going to continue to fight, fight, fight.”