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Analysis: Five observations from the UNC Tar Heel’s season-opening loss to Cal

North Carolina quarterback Nathan Elliott (11) picks up ten yards and a first down in the third quarter against California. Elliott used for 58 yards in the Tar Heels’ 24-17 loss on Saturday, September 1, 2018, at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif.
North Carolina quarterback Nathan Elliott (11) picks up ten yards and a first down in the third quarter against California. Elliott used for 58 yards in the Tar Heels’ 24-17 loss on Saturday, September 1, 2018, at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif. rwillett@newsobserver.com

This was not the type of performance North Carolina had hoped for heading into its game against California.

Three interceptions in the first two quarters. Four penalties that gave the Bears 52 yards it otherwise would not have had. And yet another season-opening loss to a Power-Five conference opponent. Saturday’s 24-17 loss looked like more like what happened when the Tar Heels finished the season 3-9 last season.

“Turnovers and penalties,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “That’s the game right there.”

UNC is now 0-1 on the season.

Here are five takeaways from the game:

1. The offense is in trouble

It’s only the first game, but the offensive performance UNC put on was terrible. Especially in the first half. Junior quarterback Nathan Elliott threw three interceptions in the first half alone. Its receivers did not get any separation from its defenders. Its offensive line did not give Elliott much time, and there were few holes for the running backs to run through.

UNC had only one first down, six three-and-outs, and 38 yards of total offense in the first half.

When asked why he stuck with Elliott through his struggles, Fedora said, “I just felt like he gave us our best chance to win.” UNC’s No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart is true freshman Cade Fortin.

UNC scored two late touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But by then, it was too late.

“If I played better, we would have won that game for sure,” Elliott said. “I take full responsibility for this one. This loss was on me.”

Elliott finished the game throwing 15-of-35 for 137 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. Running back Antonio Williams, who started the game, had 47 yards, and one touchdown on 17 rushes.

2. UNC’s defense must force turnovers

As bad as the Tar Heels’ offense played on Saturday, their defense played well. The defense was the reason UNC had slim chance there at the end. But as well as the defense played in keeping Cal from the endzone, they didn’t force any turnovers.

That was the only criticism Fedora had for his defense.

“I thought our defense played well enough to win a football game,” he said.

A turnover likely would have changed the outcome of this game, though. A fumble recovery or an interception could have flipped the field for UNC and put the offense in a better position to score.

If the offense continues to sputter, the defense is going to have to take the game into its own hands.

3. UNC got good pressure

The Tar Heels sacked Cal’s quarterbacks four times in this game. They forced errant throws at other times because of the pressure they brought. Senior defensive end Malik Carney had two sacks. Linebacker Jonathan Smith was credited with 1.5 sacks and defensive tackle Jalen Dalton was credited with half a sack.

And that’s against a Cal offensive line that’s supposed to be among the most experienced in the country. The offensive line had 60 combined starts last year.

But the Tar Heels gave them trouble.

The Bears passed for 119 yards on Saturday. Credit UNC’s defensive pressure.

4. Outside of Ratliff-Williams, which WR will step up?

Ratliff-Williams wasn’t great either. The 6-1, 205-pound wide receiver had only three catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. He was targeted nine times.

That’s part of the problem, though. Most of Elliott’s targets went to either him or one of the running backs out of the backfield.

Sophomores Dazz Newsome, Roscoe Johnson and Rontavius Groves, the only other wide receivers to catch a pass, combined for four catches and 30 yards.

On third down and long, Cal and the rest of the stadium knew that the ball was going to Ratliff-Williams. Other teams will soon know that too.

5. UNC might have something in Dominique Ross

Throughout camp, the only confirmed starters at linebacker were Smith and Cole Holcomb. Both had played well in the past and had good summers. The last linebacker spot was still up for grabs.

Dominique Ross, who started for UNC at outside linebacker Saturday, seems to have secured that spot for good. The 6-3, 220-pound outside linebacker was a big reason UNC’s defense performed as well as it did. He was good in coverage and against the run. Ross had five tackles, one for a loss, and four pass breakups.

Ross, a junior, said the game has slowed down for him since last season.

“I’ve been watching a lot of film, going over a lot of things,” Ross said about his performance. “I just felt very prepared to play this game and I just came out and did what I needed to do.”

Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander
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