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Mack is back, and the Tar Heels are in the win column

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With North Carolina’s 24–20 win over South Carolina on Saturday, head coach Mack Brown became the first UNC head coach to win a season opener against a Power 5 opponent since, well, Mack Brown the first time around. Since the initial 1997 win over Indiana, the Tar Heels had gone 0–11 against major conference opponents, repeatedly finding new ways to disappoint hopeful fans right out of the starting gate.

Brown had already won the offseason, rebuilding ties around the state and building a strong foundation to the 2020 recruiting class, but the real test would be whether the hope and excitement surrounding the Tar Heel program would survive a return to the field for a team that had managed only five wins in the prior two seasons. 

It turns out that the former BCS National Championship-winning coach has not lost his on-field touch after five years of retirement, as the confidence and resilience that Brown and the Carolina staff have worked so hard to build into their team’s DNA was visible throughout the contest against a physical and experienced South Carolina team that was a double-digit favorite at kickoff.

CULTURE CHANGE

The great boxing trainer Cus D’Amato used to say, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. When you get hit, that’s when you’ve got to be confident.” And after an offseason of positivity, one uncertainty heading into Saturday’s opener was how fragile this team’s newfound confidence would be. Would they handle adversity well or fold when things didn’t go their way? 

That question was definitively answered on Saturday. It would have been easy to fold after going down 11 points in the second half, but a look at the UNC sideline showed no panic. Players and coaches alike still believed and remained committed to the initial plan. Offensive 

coordinator Phil Longo stuck with the same plan, emphasizing the running the game and letting his stable of running backs — and huge offensive line — wear down the Gamecock defense throughout the second half and putting Howell in advantageous situations to test South Carolina downfield.

Teams ultimately take on the personality and character of their head coaches, and it’s apparent that Brown’s calm confidence has already begun to pervade the Carolina program he originally built up in the 1990s. 

DEFENSE STIFLES GAMECOCKS

On the field, the most obvious improvements over recent UNC teams were seen on the defensive side of the ball, where Jay Bateman’s shape-shifting defense limited South Carolina to 128 yards rushing and harassed quarterback Jake Bentley to the tune of three sacks and four hurries, amounting to pressure on over 20% of 33 dropbacks.

Bateman takes pride in how well his teams tackle — highlighting his low-impact daily tackling drills as key to his success as a coordinator — and despite a few early hiccups in that regard, Carolina was noticeably better in that department, limiting big plays with disciplined angles and fundamentally sound techniques.

Perhaps the most noteworthy difference, however, was the outstanding pass coverage, which kept Bentley confused throughout and did a terrific job diagnosing and matching up with the Gamecock receivers’ routes. The game-sealing interception by Myles Wolfolk was Exhibit A of the improvement in this respect, as the Tar Heel safety quickly diagnosed the pass concept and undercut the route from the opposite side of the secondary.

RECEIVERS MAKE PLAYS LATE

Highly touted true freshman Sam Howell got the start at quarterback, and Longo’s game plan ultimately found ways to give Howell a chance to win the game without giving him many opportunities to lose it with a big mistake. 

After three quarters of an especially run-heavy approach, Longo gave Howell the chance to win it in the fourth quarter, calling a series of high-reward, low-risk fade routes that have been a core part of Longo’s offense since the Carolina coordinator studied that concept under Washington State head coach Mike Leach. Howell came through in the clutch, aided by a dropped near-interception and a highlight-reel one-handed catch for a touchdown by receiver Dyami Brown. 

A STRONGER, BETTER-CONDITIONED TEAM

Confidence on the football field is often closely connected to physical strength and conditioning levels, and UNC looked like a wholly different program in that respect on Saturday. Despite getting less press than the coordinator hires, Brown’s installation of Brian Hess as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach is already paying dividends. 

Hess brought an entirely new approach to how the team trains, emphasizing movements and tests that research has demonstrated transfer to on-field performance and injury prevention rather than raw weightlifting numbers. Early returns are obviously quite encouraging; after a healthy exit to camp, UNC did not wilt down the stretch in a close game, as had been the trend in recent years. Instead, the Heels looked like the fresher, better conditioned Carolina team down the stretch in Charlotte, winning the fourth quarter 15–0.

DOMINATING THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE

Carolina’s newfound physicality and conditioning edge was nowhere more visible than on the line of scrimmage, where the UNC offensive line mauled a highly-regarded Gamecock defensive front to the tune of 238 yards on 52 carries (a healthy 4.6 yards per carry) while giving Howell plenty of time to throw downfield. Redshirt freshman guard Ed Montilus especially stood out, combining with senior left tackle Charlie Heck to dominate the left side of the line of scrimmage.

STATS OF THE WEEK

12-1-1. In his first game at the position since moving from quarterback, linebacker Chazz Surratt led Carolina with 12 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 pass breakup.

0. That’s how many interceptions Howell threw on 24 pass attempts. That’s also two fewer than South Carolina’s three-year returning starter and senior (Bentley) threw against Bateman’s defense.

7. South Carolina’s leading returning receiver, Bryan Edwards (846 yards, 7 TDs in 2018) managed one catch for seven yards against the Tar Heel defense on Saturday.

Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.

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