North Carolina's defeat against South Carolina on Thursday will be remembered for how the Tar Heels lost and what they lost: an opportunity for an elusive program-defining – or program-changing, perhaps – victory.
“We needed to win the football game to be where we want to be,” Larry Fedora, in his fourth season as UNC's coach, said after it ended. “And we didn't get it done.”
There were some positives, though. The emergence of sophomore running back Elijah Hood, for one. And the overall play of the defense, which looked much different in UNC's 17-13 loss against the Gamecocks than it did during most of last season.
In addition to the mistakes on offense – the three Marquise Williams interceptions, two in the red zone – that was the most frustrating aspect of UNC's defeat: that the defense played well enough to win and yet UNC still lost.
The 17 points the Tar Heels allowed were the fewest they'd given up since a 34-17 victory against Cincinnati in the 2013 Belk Bowl. The Tar Heels allowed 394 yards, a total that would have ranked among their best performances last season.
It was a positive start for a unit that was completely revamped and rebuilt during the offseason, what with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. He had spoken of the importance of playing with increased physicality and a better attitude. Both were evident in the season-opener.
“I thought there was a lot to build on defensively,” Fedora said. “Really, a lot.”
The pass defense excelled, especially. During one of the worst defensive seasons in school history last year, the Tar Heels were known for leaving receivers open and for giving up long, game-changing plays.
On Thursday night, though, the UNC defense allowed 140 passing yards and 5.2 yards per pass attempt. On a per-pass basis, it was the Tar Heels' best pass defense performance since 2013.
The defense wasn't perfect. South Carolina took its first lead – one it didn't relinquish – with Shon Carson's 48-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
By then it seemed like the Gamecocks' significant advantage in time of possession had started to wear down UNC. The Tar Heels allowed 254 yards rushing, their third consecutive game dating to last season that they'd given up at least 250 rushing yards.
“We've got to do a better job of stopping the run,” Fedora said. “And I think some of that was missed tackles, because it looked like we had guys in positions most of the time. I think there was only a couple of runs where I felt like that we might have been out of position.”
Even so, UNC's defense on Thursday night didn't much resemble the one from a season ago. The Tar Heels indeed played with more physicality, as Chizik had emphasized, and outside of that 48-yard touchdown run it didn't allow the kind of long plays that repeatedly doomed them last season.
“I wouldn't say that we have arrived,” Fedora said of the defense on Thursday. “But we did enough to win the football game tonight.”
It was something he couldn't have often said a season ago.