CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina’s season opener ended up being a repeat of last year’s first game, down to letting a winnable game against a Southeastern Conference opponent slip away.
The No. 22 Tar Heels now will find out whether they can repeat last year’s surge out of a crushing loss, too.
“It can be done and we’ve done it,” junior defensive tackle Nazair Jones said Monday, “but we can’t lean on that to just say, ‘Oh, we did it last year, we’re just going to waltz in and do it again.’ We definitely still have to put that work in to get the job done.”
The Tar Heels lost 33-24 to No. 18 Georgia in Atlanta on Saturday. And much like last year’s opening loss to South Carolina, their run defense struggled, their starting quarterback couldn’t get the high-scoring offense in gear and the team’s top weapon — tailback Elijah Hood — just didn’t get many carries despite finding holes.
Last year’s team followed that Week 1 disappointment by winning 11 straight games, climbing into the top 10 of the Top 25 poll for the first time since 1997 and winning a division title to earn a trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. The Tar Heels will try to repeat that surge, starting Saturday at Illinois.
Fifth-year coach Larry Fedora was quick to point out the first loss doesn’t impact the Tar Heels’ primary goals of winning the ACC’s Coastal Division, saying the league title and winning a mythical state title by beating every instate opponent on the schedule.
“You guys may find this hard to believe, but I’m going to say I felt relief, all right?” Fedora said of watching the film. “Because flying home the other night, that’s not the way I felt. After watching the film, I’m like ‘OK, every issue we had was correctable.’ . It’s not like, ‘We were deficient here, we’re not going to be able to hold up, now what are we going to have to do scheme-wise to cover that hole?'”
He didn’t have to look far to see the problems, either.
Georgia ran for 289 yards behind Nick Chubb, just the latest huge performance allowed by a defense that has surrendered 1,561 yards on the ground in its last four games.
The Tar Heels didn’t get a strong performance from starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who missed on a couple of deep balls and couldn’t get the offense into a consistent big-play rhythm that can wear out defenses.
Then there was the lack of workload for Hood, a physical back who runs with a tackler-punishing style and gets better with more carries. A year after running for 138 yards but getting just 13 carries against South Carolina, Hood got just 10 carries for 72 yards to go with six catches for 28 yards against Georgia.
While Hood and T.J. Logan (six carries for 80 yards and a touchdown) combined for 16 carries, Trubisky threw 40 times but managed just 156 yards. And an offense that averaged program records of 40.7 points and 486.9 yards last year finished with 315 yards against the Bulldogs.
“For me, it’s not really looking at the numbers,” Trubisky said. “It’s all about feel. And I feel like we were inconsistent.”