IF THERE WAS ever any chance of North Carolina winning Thursday night, it slipped through T.J. Thorpe’s hands when he muffed the first punt the Tar Heels provoked from South Carolina.
The beleaguered North Carolina defense had finally produced its first stop after three straight South Carolina scoring drives, but Thorpe’s fumble put the Gamecocks right back on the field to tack on another field goal.
Not that Thorpe alone was responsible for what happened Thursday. Not by a long shot. The Tar Heels’ deficiencies were holistic, global and shared. They were outmatched in every facet by superior opposition long before Mother Nature had her say. South Carolina was winning 27-10 before the lightning delay, and that was the final score. But it was never that close. The Gamecocks left the door open once or twice, but that was it.
And so it goes for the ACC, again. Wake Forest did beat Presbyterian in Winston-Salem. But South Carolina was putting the wood to North Carolina in yet another SEC pounding to open the season. It wasn’t even quick and merciful. The lengthy weather delay in the fourth quarter only prolonged the inevitable.
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There was a point in the first half when it seemed like survival might be the best-case scenario for North Carolina. Not victory, which all but went out the window on the Gamecocks’ first drive, a three-play quick strike that undressed and exposed a North Carolina defense that may, someday, be better than it was last year but was not any better Thursday. Up to Conference USA standards, maybe, but no better.
No, mere survival would have been welcomed as the Gamecocks picked apart the Tar Heels for more than 200 yards in the first quarter while simultaneously stifling the North Carolina offense on their way to scoring the first 17 points of the game. It was 20-7 at halftime, one of those odd 13-point blowouts where the score in no way resembled the mood.
Somewhat surprisingly, it had nothing to do with Jadeveon Clowney, who was certainly a presence but not a disruptive one, let alone dominant. (Not that the Gamecocks needed him — Spurrier sat his star defensive end for a big chunk of the first half, realizing he was better saved for more threatening opposition down the road.) Whatever problems North Carolina had, Clowney wasn’t one of them. Some of that was left tackle James Hurst, but Clowney lined up all over the place.
And yet North Carolina had chances, before the thunder and lightning swept through. Had Thorpe held onto that ball at midfield, the Tar Heels would have been driving with momentum, down 10. Had the Tar Heels been able to do anything on the final drive of the first half, they would have started the second half with the ball and a chance to take an improbable lead.
As it was, they put together their best drive of the night to open the second half, 17 plays for a field goal while converting twice on fourth down. It was too little, too late, especially when Mike Davis went 75 yards for a touchdown on the very next play from scrimmage.
The Tar Heels had chances — not many, but chances to be sure. But Thorpe fumbled, and that final drive of the first half fizzled. At South Carolina, on a Thursday night, with a well-lubricated crowd in the cavernous confines of Williams-Brice Stadium, there is no room for such miscues. North Carolina may not have needed a perfect performance to win this one, but the Tar Heels had to come a lot closer than this.
It’s hardly a catastrophic loss for North Carolina. The Tar Heels will have every opportunity to pick themselves up and move on from a night when they couldn’t do anything with the very few opportunities they had.