Extra Points: Cockeyed In Columbia
by Lee Pace, GoHeels.com
The decisions were buried deep into the game and the questions came well into the postgame press conference, but they are little kernels worth gnawing on for future reference. That Steve Spurrier would throw a play-action pass downfield with less than a minute to play and his team comfortably ahead is no surprise (see: Duke 41, Carolina 0, Nov. 18, 1989). But that Larry Fedora would then call a time out after the unsuccessful pass and ensuing running play with five seconds left in the game, his team trailing 27-10, elicited all manner of arched eyebrows, cocked heads and shrugged shoulders among the handful of fans still on hand in Williams-Brice Stadium.
"Why the time out?" Fedora was queried as his postgame session with the media was winding down.
"Because I wanted to make them punt," Fedora answered. "I was going to try to block it."
"Might you not have called that time out had they not thrown the ball downfield with 11 seconds left?" came the follow-up question.
"Probably not," Fedora answered.
End of session. Fedora stood up, made his way out of the interview room and added, "I wondered if someone would ask that question."
Say what you will about the Tar Heels' shortcomings and blunders Thursday night amidst a muggy and clammy cauldron in Columbia--the secondary beatings, the missed tackles, a grievous fumbled punt, the red-zone whiffs. There's something to be said in the big picture for having a coach who's engaged and scrapping and clawing and has his players' backs until the bitter end, one that came nearly five hours after the opening kick-off given a one hour, 45 minute weather delay in the fourth quarter.
"That's Coach Fedora, that's our mindset," QB Bryn Renner said. "We're always trying to win a game."
That was a task that proved beyond the reach of Fedora Edition II vs. Spurrier Edition IX Thursday in a made-for-ESPN season opener. Spurrier has elevated the Gamecocks to their highest level ever--a preseason No. 6 national ranking--and recruited the most talented and recognizable player in the land--the dreadlocked colossus named Jadaveon Clowney, a defensive end who gobbles up quarterbacks and tailbacks like Pac-Man shredding a row of Blinky, Pinky and Inky. Clowney was so large as a boy growing up in Rock Hill that his mother needed to carry his birth certificate into Pizza Hut for proof in order to get the child's discount; he is uncannily gifted as well with running ability that allows him to motor 40 yards in 4.46 seconds.
That speed, size and power coalesced on one snap in the Outback Bowl last New Year's Day, when he nearly decapitated a Michigan running back and presented the voracious 24/7 media machine a snippet to run a caboodle of times during the summertime football void. So silly had the hype become that a Columbia radio station with the frequency 104.7 took to billing itself as "104.Clowney" after the great one's jersey number, and ESPN produced a sappy piece that showed quarterbacks roused from bedtime slumbers with nightmares of garnet No. 7.
The impending match-up of Clowney and Tar Heel left tackle James Hurst reached the ballyhoo meter equal to that of Ali v. Frazier, Riggs v. King and Arnie v. Jack, but the most prescient observation during August came from Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson as he looked at the forest rather than zoning in on trees. Hurst had started 36 games at left tackle as a Tar Heel; right tackle Jon Heck hadn't played in a game of tackle football since The Bolles School of Jacksonville won the Florida state title in December 2011.
"I'm not as concerned about Hurst as much as the right tackle," Anderson said. "Heck's going to be on his own a good bit. We've got a first-rounder blocking a first-rounder on the left, we've got a freshman blocking another first-rounder on the other side."
Indeed, as this game unfolded before a sweat-laden crowd of 81,572, it was less about Clowney and more about everyone else. Hurst accomplished his goal of keeping Clowney off Renner (Clowney had three tackles, no sacks and four QB hurries), but the rest of the Gamecock defensive front is outstanding. South Carolina's offensive wall used its 55-pound-a-man advantage over the Tar Heel defensive line to control the line of scrimmage, and sophomore running back Mike Davis helped Gamecock fans forget Marcus Lattimore, the excellent tailback now in the NFL. Davis ran for 115 yards and South Carolina cracked out six yards a snap running the ball.
Meanwhile, Tar Heel cornerbacks were twice beaten deep for scores and the offense twice forged inside the 10 yard-line and but reaped only three points total. And in a dagger to Fedora's heart, his beloved punt return team made a major gaffe in the second quarter when T.J. Thorpe fumbled a kick that was recovered by the Gamecocks and Norkeithus Otis was flagged for holding on the same play. The Tar Heels staunched the bleeding of a 17-0 first-quarter deficit and played to a 10-10 stalemate from there. But the damage was done early.
"We looked like we were stuck in mud," Fedora said.
"The national stage, and we really didn't show up like we'd wanted to," receiver Quinshad Davis added.
The Tar Heels logged only 10 points, the lowest number since Fedora and Anderson have been in Chapel Hill. The Gamecock defense is hardly a one-trick pony; Clowney is surrounded by a trio of experienced and talented teammates in Chaz Sutton at the other end and Kelcy Quarles and J.T. Surratt inside and a pair of productive newcomers in Darius English on the edge and Gerald Dixon Jr. at tackle. Their ability to harass Renner without blitzing allowed the secondary to play comfortably loose and prevent the big strike downfield.
"They played a three-deep or high two-deep all night long and never had to commit a bunch of extra bodies to the box," Anderson said. "They're good enough up front that someone was always there to make a play or they were able to get pressure with just three and four. They only blitzed a couple times all day and were still able to create stress for you. We wanted to push the ball downfield more, but by nature of the coverages they were able to run without having to commit extra bodies in the box to stop the run, it just doesn't create many opportunities for you to push the ball vertically."
Anderson liked the fact that the Tar Heels' quick offensive tempo caused the Gamecocks some problems. South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said the Tar Heels were the fastest offense he'd ever seen, and Spurrier acknowledged his team had some conditioning issues keeping up. Fedora and the Carolina coaches complained from the sideline more than once that South Carolina was not getting its substitutes off the field quickly enough. Still, there was little space downfield for Renner to find receivers, and the Tar Heels didn't break running plays or short passes into big gains. If a team has to piece together drives of 14, 17 and 18 plays, odds are something bad is going to happen along the way.
"They tackle you one-on-one in space, and we didn't break many tackles," Anderson said. "We didn't have any catch-and-runs. They bottled us up. We were getting three and four and five yards a pop, but you don't have the luxury of pushing the ball downfield against coverages that have a safety deep or two safeties playing 18-19 yards deep and back-pedaling."
Five plays summed up the Tar Heels' defensive woes-touchdown strikes of 65 and 29 yards in the first quarter; a 21-yard scramble by QB Connor Shaw on the Gamecocks' second scoring drive; a fourth-and-two run in which Brandon Wilds was stopped at the line of scrimmage but bull-dozed his way to an eight-yard gain; and a 75-yard run by Davis in the third quarter that popped when one Tar Heel didn't wrap him at the line of scrimmage and a secondary player then took a poor angle when he should have made the stop four yards beyond the line.
"It's disconcerting--they get 195 yards on four plays and 216 yards on 55 other plays," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "But those four count. For some reason we seemed to be apprehensive early, we weren't really electric. But our guys played really, really hard. We graded fewer 'loafs' than at any time last year. We fit the gaps for the most part. We plastered receivers pretty well when the quarterback scrambled. For the most part, the plays we got beat were not missed assignments or being in the wrong place. It was just a guy getting beat or getting out-run."
The good news for the Tar Heels is that two newcomers along the offensive front are now properly baptized; freshman offensive weapons Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard are tippy-toeing into relevance; Norkeithus Otis and Travis Hughes, a pair big-time recruiting prizes in the 2011 class, have found starting roles on defense and will hopefully emerge as forces this season; Thorpe at receiver and Darius Lipford at Bandit, each sidelined in 2012 because of injury, are healthy again and will play important roles in 2013; and strong safeties Darien Rankin and Dominique Green recovered from pre-season injuries enough to share time alongside Tre Boston in the secondary.
"We knew this game wasn't going to make or break our season," Fedora said. "We've got a long way to go. We knew what we were up against. I'm just disappointed we didn't play better."
It should be a more interesting game in 2015 when the Tar Heels and Gamecocks open the season in Charlotte. By then the Tar Heels will have 85 players on scholarship and won't be awarding scholarships in August to seven walk-ons. Who knows: Maybe then Steve Spurrier will be throwing deep late in an effort to catch up.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now in his 24th year writing "Extra Points" and 10th reporting from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network. His unique look at Tar Heel football will appear weekly throughout the fall.