North Carolina

UNC squanders opportunity in 33-24 loss against Georgia

Georgia’s Dominick Sanders stop North Carolina’s Carl Tucker in the first quarter at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta,.
Georgia’s Dominick Sanders stop North Carolina’s Carl Tucker in the first quarter at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta,. rwillett@newsobserver.com

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.

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.

Key moment:

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.

Key number:

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.

Key player:

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.

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