Game one of the 2018 college football season brought North Carolina and ECU back down to reality.
In 2017, the Tar Heels and the Pirates — who will play each other this Saturday in Greenville, N.C. — ended their season with identical 3-9 records.
Despite a fresh start and hopes to start off strong, the two teams fell flat against California and North Carolina A&T, respectively, this past weekend. The weaknesses of the teams were exposed early in their regular season openers, but with a 0-2 record at stake, this contest will be all about addressing those mistakes on both sides.
For UNC, the place to start is with the offense.
The first act of the Tar Heel offense this season, 14 drives against the Golden Bears, led to six three-and-outs and four turnovers, while mustering up only 301 yards of total offense. The team struggled to move the ball, or even get it into the hands of its best playmakers for much of the game.
At quarterback, starter Nathan Elliott completed just 15 of his 35 passes for 137 yards, throwing four interceptions and a touchdown. That lone score acted as a smidgen of hope, and came with just over a minute left on the clock.
“After a thorough evaluation of the tape, you saw on offense, especially in the first half, a multitude of issues as far as execution and taking care of your job," head coach Larry Fedora said on Monday.
Elliott and the rest of the offense will receive another shot to 'take care of their jobs' and address their problems this week. Fedora expects that better protection from the offensive line as a unit will help the football team "perform much better than they did." A flawed Pirate defense will help even more.
ECU held onto a 10-point lead until almost halftime against the Aggies, at which point victory started to slip out of reach. With six seconds left until the break, N.C. A&T punctuated a meticulous 86-yard march downfield for a touchdown to bring the game close. It was a turning point in the game that really showcased the cracks in the Pirate defense.
In the midst of that 86-yard drive, two straight five-yard penalties put the Aggies at third-and-18, but even that wasn’t enough for the Pirates to make a stop. The offense completed a pass for the first down and continued down the field for seven points.
While the final numbers for the Aggies weren’t stellar, they found a way to score in spurts, something well within reach for North Carolina, even after last week’s woes. An extra factor lasting from several years ago might add to the Tar Heels' motivation to put up more points.
Four years ago, the last time the schools met, UNC had trouble keeping up on offense and defense. Fedora might claim to not recall the contest, as he did on Wednesday afternoon following the completion of practice, but the 70-41 loss probably isn't something he wants to experience again.
Only two players currently on the UNC roster, defensive players Allen Artis and Tyler Powell, played in the 2014 game against ECU.
"For me, it's one of those ones that I've been waiting for because I hate that feeling," defensive tackle Powell said. "That was kind of brutal and as a freshman especially, I got hurt that game. Being able to have that second chance to come back and really be able to redeem ourselves, I think it's going to be really important."
With that experience under his belt, it can all go better this time around if the defense continues what it started a week ago — while proving itself in another regard as well.
The Tar Heels forced eight punts from the Golden Bears, limiting them to just 279 yards of total offense and giving up scores primarily after wincing turnovers put California in decent field position.
But the Golden Bears didn’t have much of a passing attack, a strength ECU relies upon. Almost 70 percent of the Pirates' plays were of the pass variety last week, a variable North Carolina isn't yet accustomed to this season.
Last week, starting quarterback Reid Herring completed 37 of his 65 passes and threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns. Mostly throwing mid-range passes, Herring can pick apart defenses and find receivers for chunks of yards at a time. But he is also susceptible to turnovers. He threw two interceptions on Sunday.
If the Tar Heels can force their first interception of the year, it could limit the comfort level of the team relying on the pass — leaving everything else about their opponent up in the air.
Week one wasn't the best showing for either program; however, this week, one of the two can start to pull themselves out of that hole.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.