All week North Carolina coach Larry Fedora had talked about how anxious and excited he was for the Tar Heels’ first game of the season against California.
The Tar Heels were coming off a 3-9 season, marred by injuries at nearly every position. Thirteen of its players were suspended for selling team-issued gear this summer. Fedora was criticized for his comments on CTE in July.
After a month of training camp and summer practices, the season opener signified a fresh start. A chance to turn around its past misfortunes.
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But the start to Saturday’s game was anything but fresh. UNC dug itself an early 17-0 hole in the first half and could not climb back out.
The Bears capitalized off Nathan Elliott’s three first-half interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, and beat the Tar Heels 24-17 at California Memorial Stadium. UNC’s defense likely saved it from further embarrassment.
This was the second consecutive year Cal has beaten UNC in a season opener. The Bears beat the Tar Heels 35-30 last season in Chapel Hill.
But in this game, UNC’s offense didn’t give it much of a chance. UNC finished with more punting yards than it had total yards.
After Elliott’s three first-half interceptions, it never really felt like UNC had much of a chance to come back. Even when they got the deficit to seven late in the game.
Elliott was 15 for 35 for the game. He had 144 yards, four interceptions and one touchdown. He also ran for 58 yards.
The first interception came late in the first quarter. Elliott overthrew senior wide receiver Thomas Jackson. The ball fell right into safety Jaylinn Hawskins’ hands, who returned it for 10 yards to UNC’s 23.
Cal scored five plays later on a three-yard rush by Cal running back Patrick Laird.
The second interception happened two drives later. Defensive end Cameron Goode picked it off and returned it for a 38-yard touchdown, giving the Bears a 14-0 lead.
The third interception happened two drives after that. UNC was fortunate this was deep in Cal’s territory and did not result in points for the Bears.
The fourth interception Elliott threw came in the third quarter.
UNC did not score its first points until 4:39 left in third quarter. Senior kicker Freeman Jones knocked in a 43-yard field goal. By that time, Cal had a 17-3 lead.
The Bears added one more touchdown to go up 24-3 at the end of the third quarter. UNC scored two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, including an Antonio Williams rush, to bring the score to one possession. Williams, who transferred from Ohio State in the spring, finished the game with 47 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown.
But by then, it was too late.