Luke DeCock

DeCock: North Carolina makes poor first impression in prime time

The rain came, and as determined as it was, it couldn’t wash away North Carolina’s performance. By the time the game resumed, almost two hours later, the telecast had been shunted from ESPN to ESPNews, which wasn’t the worst thing that happened to the Tar Heels all night.

They knew everyone would tune in to watch Jadeveon Clowney, but those same people would see North Carolina, too. The Tar Heels didn’t exactly produce a performance to show the world. The fewer people who saw the conclusion, the better.

“We’re in front of millions and millions of people in an ESPN prime-time game,” North Carolina wide receiver T.J. Thorpe said. “To come out and perform the way we did, that’s not us, of course. Some of us might have felt the moment was too big, or whatever the case may be. We just got outplayed today.”

If there was ever any chance of North Carolina beating South Carolina, it slipped through Thorpe’s hands when he muffed the first and only punt the Tar Heels provoked in the first half at midfield. The beleaguered North Carolina defense had finally produced its first stop after three straight South Carolina scoring drives, but Thorpe’s fumble put the Gamecocks right back on the field.

Not that Thorpe alone was responsible for what happened Thursday. Not by a long shot. The Tar Heels’ deficiencies were holistic, global and shared. They were outmatched in every facet by superior opposition long before Mother Nature had her say. South Carolina won 27-10, and it wasn’t even quick and merciful. The lengthy weather delay in the fourth quarter only prolonged the inevitable.

There was a point in the first half when it seemed like survival might be the best-case scenario for North Carolina. Not victory, which all but went out the window on the Gamecocks’ first drive, a three-play quick strike that undressed and exposed a North Carolina defense that may, someday, be better than it was last year but was not any better Thursday. Up to Conference USA standards, maybe, but no better.

No, mere survival would have been welcomed as the Gamecocks picked apart the Tar Heels for more than 200 yards in the first quarter while simultaneously stifling the North Carolina offense on their way to scoring the first 17 points of the game.

Somewhat surprisingly, it had nothing to do with Jadeveon Clowney, who was certainly a presence but not a disruptive one, let alone dominant. Whatever problems North Carolina had, Clowney wasn’t one of them. Some of that was left tackle James Hurst, some of that was a stomach virus Clowney disclosed after the game, but he never got to Bryn Renner.

And yet North Carolina had chances. Had Thorpe held onto that ball at midfield, the Tar Heels would have been driving, with momentum, down 10. Had the Tar Heels been able to score on the final drive of the first half, they would have started the second half with the ball and a chance to take an improbable lead.

Instead, the Tar Heels walked away with the lowest-scoring offensive output of Larry Fedora’s head-coaching tenure and an equally dismal defensive performance.

“Our offense is way better than it was today,” said receiver Quinshad Davis, North Carolina’s lone South Carolinian. “The national stage, and we didn’t really show up like we wanted to.”

It wasn’t the first impression this year’s Tar Heels wanted to make. A display like that, on national TV, was almost as disappointing as the loss itself.