This was a game – like North Carolina’s previous losses – where the Tar Heels again came out on the short end of turnovers and time of possession. It was also a game impacted by defensive pressure – the general lack of pressure by the Tar Heels and the ability of South Florida to bring defensive pressure.
Although head coach Butch Davis was clearly disappointed in the outcome, he continued to praise the effort of the UNC team. “I have not come back to the locker room one time when I felt this team had quit,” Davis said.
* Turnovers. They were again a major factor in this game, as they were in North Carolina’s previous two losses, with UNC quarterback T.J. Yates throwing four interceptions.
Yates’ first interception was, in effect, a 48-yard punt with no return. The interception came as UNC faced a third-and-fifteen. That turnover resulted in no South Florida points, as they had to punt following the turnover. The second Yates’ interception – which included a questionable interference no-call – yielded only a field goal to South Florida. “The defense worked so hard to get us the ball, and then we’d give it right back to them,” UNC quarterback T.J. Yates said.
The third interception and fourth interceptions, however, were more costly. The third interception came after rare pressure by North Carolina forced a Grothe fumble. While South Florida only managed a field goal after the pick, UNC gave up great field position. The fourth interception came after North Carolina had held South Florida on downs, the Bulls failing to convert a third-and-three. The Bulls converted that turnover into seven points.
The Tar Heels were unable to turn any of the three turnovers – all fumbles - they gained into points, even a fumbled punt recovery that gave them possession on the 19-yard line. When North Carolina creates a rare turnover, they need to do a better job of being opportunistic.
* Time of Possession. This was again a problem for the Tar Heels, with South Florida nearly doubling them in the first half. Poor tackling, and the failure of the UNC defense to force South Florida into third-and-long situations, contributed to the inability of North Carolina to get off the field. On South Florida’s second touchdown drive, they did not face a third down conversion longer than three yards. The UNC offense contributed to the lop-sided time-of-possession with turnovers and an inability to move the chains. The Tar Heels had eleven possessions that lasted less than two minutes.
* Pressure. This was also a game of pressure – rare pressure by North Carolina’s defense on the Golden Bulls’ signal-caller, Matt Grothe, while Tar Heel quarterback T.J. Yates was harassed by South Florida’s defense early and often. South Florida was able to break down North Carolina’s pass protection schemes to a degree not seen so far this season. “They definitely did a good of keeping the pressure on,” Yates said. When Bulls defensive end George Selvie, who had three sacks, wasn’t harassing Yates, they employed some effective blitzes by linebackers (one by linebacker Carlton Williams resulted in a sack), and would occasionally also bring a corner (such as Trae Williams, whose blitz almost resulted in another interception).
When he had time, which was often, USF quarterback Matt Grothe was often able to exploit the Tar Heels’ zone coverage in the secondary. Grothe also did a good job of rolling away from the pressure UNC was able to bring. “You just have to give credit to their offensive line,” UNC cornerback Kendric Burney said.
South Florida’s strategy of spreading the field on offense contributed to the lack of pressure by the UNC defense. The Tar Heels were not able to put any pressure on Grothe when South Florida went into their multiple receiver sets. Grothe would often exploit any cushion yielded on the corner coverage, with wide receiver Amari Jackson picking up good yardage on simple toss-and-catch plays to the outside.
* Looking Inward. Following the game, several Tar Heel players, while giving credit to the South Florida team, said that this loss was more about North Carolina than South Florida. “It’s always about us,” defensive tackle Marvin Austin said. “It’s never about the other team. “We just have to come out and take care of our responsibilities,” Burney said. “They’re a great team,” offensive tackle Garrett Reynolds said, “but our mistakes and errors were more to blame.” “We did not give them our best effort,” Yates said. “Absolutely, we didn’t.”
* Houston’s Debut. UNC head coach Butch Davis said that they anticipated playing running back Ryan Houston – who became the 11th true freshmen to play for UNC this year - before the game, regardless of the score. Davis said that North Carolina “sorely needed more balance” and to be more “multi-dimensional” on offense and simply could not rely on Yates to carry that phase of the team. Davis indicated he was pleased with Houston’s performance – and perhaps a bit surprised.
* Learning Experience. Davis indicated that the early strategy on offense – which saw T.J.Yates taking the snap from the shotgun formation with an empty backfield without a huddle – was a good plan but failed in its execution.
While T.J. Yates suffered his first poor performance of the year (11-of-27, 85 yards, 4 INTs), Davis gave no indication that he considered replacing Yates at any point in the game. Davis instead relayed that he had talked with Yates about how games like this must be viewed as learning experiences – comparing the situation to how Troy Aikman’s rookie year was considered a bust in come circles.