North Carolina entered the Georgia Dome on Saturday seeking a program-changing, momentum-building victory – the kind the Tar Heels used as a catalyst to become a national contender during the mid-1990s. The Tar Heels left instead with frustration and an opportunity lost.
Amid a torrent of fourth-quarter penalties and defensive breakdowns, UNC endured a humbling 33-24 defeat against Georgia in Chick-fil-A Kickoff. The Tar Heels’ run defense faltered, again, and penalties in key moments first hurt their ability to hold a lead and then ruined their chance to regain it.
The loss was similar in style, though perhaps not substance, to UNC’s sloppy season-opening defeat against South Carolina at the start of last season. In that one, turnovers doomed the Tar Heels. In this one, it was penalties and a familiar inability to stop the run.
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Why UNC lost:
Two reasons, primarily. First, the Tar Heels committed 13 penalties for 101 yards. Pass-interference penalties allowed Georgia to cut into UNC’s lead in the third quarter and then led to a UNC safety early in the fourth.
Needing a mistake-free drive to reclaim the lead late in the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels committed another penalty – offensive pass interference – that negated a first down. In addition to the penalties, UNC simply couldn’t stop – or often slow down – Georgia’s Nick Chubb, who ran for 222 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which was a 55-yarder that pretty much put it away late in the game.
What it means:
It means that the Tar Heels squandered an opportunity. A victory could have signaled UNC’s arrival on a national stage, in much the same way that a 1993 season-opening victory against USC did. The Tar Heels had been anticipating this game for months, and players and coaches knew what was at stake and how much a win might have meant.
The Tar Heels still haven’t beaten an FBS team in a season-opener since 2000 (Tulsa). Their last victory season-opening victory against a Power 5 opponent came in 1997, against Indiana.
In a span of less than two minutes late in the third quarter, UNC went from leading 24-14 to leading 24-23. First Georgia completed an 11-play 75-yard touchdown drive with Jacob Eason’s 17-yard pass to Isaiah McKenzie. Thirty-one seconds later, after two penalties backed the Tar Heels up inside their own 5-yard line, Georgia forced a safety. The Bulldogs turned the momentum then, and UNC never turned it back.
Take your pick between 13 and 289. The 13 represents the penalties the Tar Heels committed; the 289 the number of rushing yards they surrendered.
Overall it was clearly Chubb, who suffered a serious knee injury last October and was surrounded by questions about how effective he’d be in his first game back. In a word: Quite. He was as good as ever, averaging nearly 7 yards per carry against a defense that had been geared to stop him.
For UNC, T.J. Logan, the senior running back, had a nice breakout. He returned a kickoff 95 yards for one touchdown and scored another in the third quarter, on a 21-yard run, that gave the Tar Heels a 24-14 lead. From there, though, it was nearly all Georgia.