Would the UNC defense rebound from an abysmal 2014 campaign? Could new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik turn it around? How would the running game improve?
And throughout the offseason, one player remained unquestioned — starting quarterback Marquise Williams, undisputed leader of the Tar Heels and their high-octane offense.
But Thursday night, after the fifth-year senior tossed three costly interceptions in the red zone during UNC’s 17-13 loss to South Carolina, the questions about Williams finally surfaced.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t have an answer for it,” Coach Larry Fedora said.
“If I had an answer for it, I’d have gotten it changed. But I kept thinking that he was going to get it going. And early on, we did some really good things, and then it just wasn’t consistent enough.”
The Tar Heels quickly marched down the field to the Gamecocks’ 6-yard line on their first drive. But on third-and-goal, he made his first mistake, throwing an interception in the end zone to bring the scoring opportunity to an abrupt halt.
He quickly returned to form. Williams opened the Tar Heels’ second drive with back-to-back completions before later finding receiver Bug Howard in the end zone — giving UNC a 7-0 lead.
The touchdown proved to be the only one for UNC on Thursday night. UNC drove deep into South Carolina territory two more times in the first half, only to come away with field goals.
“That comes back to haunt you,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels opened the third quarter with a 13-10 lead and appeared set to add to it when tailback Elijah Hood busted loose for a 44-yard run, moving the ball to the Gamecocks’ 21-yard line.
But two plays later, Williams telegraphed a pass intended for Quinshad Davis, resulting in the quarterback’s second interception of the night. Yet, it wasn’t the most pivotal.
With UNC trailing 17-13 in the fourth quarter, Williams led the Tar Heels to the South Carolina 6-yard line. And on fourth down, the quarterback threw another interception in the end zone to conclude what ultimately ended up being UNC’s final drive.
“I guess he thought he had a lot of juice on the ball, but he clearly didn’t,” said Howard, who led all players with 114 yards receiving.
“We had a couple of guys open in the back of the end zone. If he had just got it, three or four inches higher over their heads, they would have been touchdowns and changed the whole game.”
After the game, Williams hung his head as reporters questioned him. His radiant smile was absent.
When asked about what led to the most interceptions of his career, Williams knew the answer.
“It’s just me, me not protecting the football,” he said.
“That’s the one thing we’ve been preaching all training camp and before this game even started — just protecting the football. I did a careless job of that tonight, and now I have to go back and watch the mistakes again. It’s going to haunt me.”