Defense lets UNC down in mistake-filled opening loss to Cal

A unit that’s had a propensity for giving up big plays in the past did so again, with mistakes both physical and mental contributing to the Tar Heels' 35-30 loss to the Bears

UNC defensive tackle Jalen Dalton puts pressure on Cal quarterback Ross Bowers during Saturday's game at Kenan Stadium. (Rob Kinnan / USA TODAY)

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s rebuilt offense figured to go through its share of growing pains in its first game together Saturday.

And it did.

What the Tar Heels didn’t count on in their season opener against California was the veteran defense that was supposed to be their strength letting them down is such dramatic fashion.

Or maybe they should have seen it coming.

A unit that’s had a propensity for giving up big plays in the past did so again, with major mistakes of both the physical and mental variety contributing greatly to a 35-30 loss to the Golden Bears at Kenan Stadium.

It marked the third straight year and the fourth time in five seasons that UNC was beaten by a Power Five opponent in its opening game. This one had a more ominous feel to it than the others, though, because of the transitional nature of this season’s roster and the difficult schedule it will face over the next few weeks.

“You can not win games like that or any game like it when you make that many mistakes,” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said. “There were just too many opportunities that we gave up on both sides of the ball to be effective and win a football game. That’s why we didn’t win it. Pretty simple.”

The comedy of errors did include a pair of interceptions thrown by LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris, who started the game and played four first half possessions before being replaced by freshman Chazz Surratt. Electric freshman running back Michael Carter, who rushed for 94 yards and scored two touchdowns, also lost a fumble while new kicker Freeman Jones missed a 45-yard field goal.

None of those miscues, however, cost the Tar Heels points. The same can’t be said for the breakdowns that occurred on the other side of the ball.

Two blown coverages turned into long touchdown passes. One came on a play in which Cal quarterback Ross Bowers scrambled his way out of a sack. The other came one snap after a pivotal lapse in judgment by UNC defensive tackle Jalen Dalton.

It happened late in the first half with the Tar Heels holding a 17-7 lead and building momentum.

UNC appeared ready to get the ball back with a chance at adding to its advantage when Bowers threw incomplete on a third-and-12 play from his own 18. But because Dalton hit Bowers late — and high — the Bears were given a reprieve.

“I’m really glad he hit me high, because that gave us a lot of momentum,” Bowers said of the key penalty. “That was on third down and we had an incompletion, so he really saved our drive with that.”

Dalton was sidelined for targeting, the second time in his last three games that he’s been ejected. Before he was even able to get to the tunnel that leads to the Tar Heels’ locker room, Bowers hooked up with Vic Wharton for a 67-yard touchdown pass that changed the complexion of the game.

The score ignited a 28-13 Cal run, with the final six of UNC’s points coming on the game’s final play.

“We honestly just beat ourselves,” said linebacker Andre Smith, who had one of the Tar Heels’ two interceptions in the game — both of which set up touchdowns. “Every time they scored it was as self-inflicted wound.

“The big plays were very disappointing. Something we pride ourselves in is not having a lot of catastrophic plays. We had a lot of that.”

Over the past two seasons, UNC’s offense was explosive enough to overcome those defensive lapses. A year ago, for instance, it won both games in which it gave up as many points as it did Saturday.

But this is a different Tar Heel offense, one in which the quarterback, running back and a majority of the receiving corps were all new, as well as a large portion of the line.

Harris, the most experienced of the four quarterbacks battling for the job, got the start and did little to distinguish himself by going 7 of 16 for 60 yards and two interceptions. He also overthrew a wide open Anthony Ratliff-Williams in the end zone for what would have been a certain touchdown.

Surratt was significantly better, completing 18 of 28 for his passes for 161 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 66 yards and a score. But he was unable to come up with a big play on fourth-and-two with his team driving for either the tying or go-ahead score with just over seven minutes remaining.

Newcomers Surratt and Carter, who gained 94 yards and those two touchdowns on his first 11 college carries, did provide a ray of hope for positive things to come. The question is how long it will take for their potential to translate into winning results.

“I feel like we showed we have the ability to make plays,” said sophomore running back Jordon Brown, who also had a productive day with 54 yards rushing and 53 more on a team-leading nine catches out of the backfield. “We just didn’t make enough plays and made too many mistakes, but we showed potential to be a great offense.”