“I’m sure that wasn’t done on purpose,” head coach Larry Fedora said, “but it was a flagrant foul and he got kicked out of the game for it.”
On the very next play, the Golden Bears connected on a 67-yard touchdown pass to cut the Tar Heels' lead to 3 in the dwindling moments of the first half. Not much went right for the UNC defense from then on.
For a unit waffling between fulfilling its highest expectations and falling to its harshest criticisms in the first half, Dalton’s ejection served as a transitional moment. Besides an Andre Smith interception in the third quarter to set up redshirt first-year Chazz Surratt’s first career touchdown pass, the defense tumbled to the latter tendency.
The defense had one last chance to prove themselves when Cal took over possession up by four with 7:12 left in the game. Eleven plays and 70 yards later, the Tar Heels watched as California’s Vic Enwere rushed in for a one-yard touchdown.
“Especially in that last drive … we have to get that corrected if we want to be successful,” Fedora said.
Exactly what needs to be corrected is an immense question for the team to answer before it takes on No. 16 Louisville next Saturday in Chapel Hill.
There were missed coverages, missed tackles and a whole lot of watching California run away on long passing plays. The Golden Bears had eight passing plays of more than 15 yards, three of which were over 40 yards. Wide receiver Vic Wharton III racked up 156 yards and a touchdown on just five catches.
“That’s disappointing,” Fedora said of the multiple breakaways on passing plays for California. “That’s not who we are going to be. We aren’t going to give up big plays.”
Redshirt senior safety Donnie Miles seconded Fedora’s opinion. While social media was full of glaring condemnations of the defense after the game, Miles and Fedora had similarly definitive stances that this was an isolated incident.
“We are gonna get it cleaned up,” Miles said. “Unfortunately we lost the game because of it. I think once we get it figured out, we are going to be a great team.”
The question of “when” they will figure it out is the most pressing problem facing the Tar Heels. With returning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson at quarterback for Louisville next week, the Tar Heels will need to make a quick turn around to avoid starting the season 0-2 for the first time since 2010.
But Smith, who combined with Miles to double last season’s team interception count of one in the first game, echoed the confidence of Miles when it came to the question of facing Jackson.
“It excites me,” Smith said. “We get the opportunity to play against a really great player and go back to work.”
It’s as if the game against California was just an opportunity to see where they stand and work out the kinks.
“We obviously got a lot to learn from this film,” Smith said. “We are just going get in and watch the film and move on.”