The difference in the second half and the first half was the difference between night and day. South Carolina scored 21 in the first half, none in the second half. The UNC offense churned up chunks of yardage in the second half, and was anemic in the first half.
The players and coaches found it difficult to explain the differences between the two halves, referencing simply better execution and fewer mental errors. "This game was kind of a ‘Tale of Two Cities,'" head coach Butch Davis said.
"The first half, we struggled slowing them down, we were kind of out of sync and out of rhythm," Davis added. "Offensively we were behind the count all the time."
The first half was at least as much about the effectiveness of the South Carolina defense as the 21 points their offense put on the board. At halftime, the Tar Heels only had 112 yards of total offense and converted only one of six first downs. "They were (in the first half) stopping the run and stopping the pass," UNC quarterback T.J. Yates said.
"In the first half we were just missing a couple of assignments and that came back to bite us in the butt," cornerback Kendric Burney said. "The second half we just all started doing our assignments and running out there and throwing the first punch."
Davis attributed much of the second-half comeback to the defense, saying, "They may have had, clearly without question, their finest performance of the season." But the offense deserves its own second half kudos – it went on to add 286 yards to finish with 398 yards on the day.
Key Stat – Field Position
From the outset of the game, field position was critical for both teams, and it worked in South Carolina's favor. Starting field position may be the key stat of this contest, and perhaps the difference in the outcome.
South Carolina took the upper hand in field position by holding UNC to a three-and-out on its first possession. The average starting field position for UNC in the first quarter was the 18-yard line; South Carolina's starting field position was the 40-yard line. To add irony to the field position situation, North Carolina's best field position of the first half came on their 45-yard line – with 0:09 left on the clock.
Special teams penalties, a delay of game and two block-in-the-back calls on UNC's return teams contributed to the poor field position early in the game. Connor Barth's streak of consecutive field goal attempts ended when he missed a 49-yard attempt, giving the Gamecocks the ball on the 32-yard yard line.
The Gamecocks' first touchdown came on a drive that began at the North Carolina 48-yard line. Their third touchdown of the first half came after a 38-yard punt return again gave the Gamecocks a short field – that possession began on the North Carolina 40-yard line. South Carolina's offense was far less productive when they faced a longer field – one reason why, they converted only 1-of-12 third down plays. Without the short-field situations in the first half, the outcome of this game might have been much different.
After South Carolina fumbled the ball on the 15-yard line in the second quarter, giving the Tar Heels an excellent opportunity to score, North Carolina gave the ball right back after quarterback T.J. Yates tossed an interception under pressure as an unblocked Gamecock bore down on him.
Near interceptions by Deunta Williams and E.J. Wilson could have changed the complexion of the first half, but both opportunities slipped from UNC's grasp. With being unable to muster much offense against a stiff South Carolina defense in the first half, the Tar Heels needed to take advantage of every South Carolina miscue – they didn't.
North Carolina missed a golden opportunity to score when the ball bounced just off the hands of a wide open Brandon Tate in the first half. The ball was slightly overthrown, but perhaps catchable. "I guess I threw it just a tad too far," Yates said. "Brandon laod out, he did everything he could to try and make that," Davis said. "But to win games like this you have to hit on some of this kinds of plays." Another touchdown opportunity went by the wayside when Greg Little dropped a pass in the end zone.
"To beat a good football team, you have to hit on some of those opportunities," Davis said. "You can't miss an extra point, you can't miss a field goal, you can't unfortunately have a drop in the end zone that would have been a touchdown.
New Wrinkle Not Enough on the Ground
Going into the game it was thought that North Carolina might be able to continue to improve its running attack – South Carolina was giving up over 190 yards per game on the ground. That hope proved illusory. South Carolina stuffed North Carolina's running game early on, and only a few tricks and new wrinkles allowed the Heels to rush for over 100 yards for the day.
North Carolina's inability to run the ball conventionally early in the game may have brought out a new facet of the Tar Heels offense – the direct snap to a non-quarterback, a la Darren McFadden at Arkansas. Greg Little ripped off 23-yards on his first attempt as the recipient of a direct snap.
"We know we have to do new things, different things, every week," Yates said. "We've had those plays in (practice) all season long."
Little followed that up with yet another attempt, good for six yards, and with those two runs Little finished as UNC's second leading rusher of the day with 29 yards. Anthony Elzy was held to 11 carries for 23 yards, but Johnny White came on late in the game to add a 21-yard run, and finished with six carries for 37 yards to lead the Tar Heels in rushing.
Pressure Affects Yates
Pressure from the Gamecocks was a problem all day, as T.J. Yates was sacked four times, and was often forced to throw the ball out-of-bounds to avoid a sack. Credit the Gamecock secondary for many of those sacks, as they often pressed on the corners in a tight man-to-man, giving Yates few open targets - a cause not helped when Brandon Tate (head injury) was held out the second half, and Hakeem Nicks was held out for all but a minute of the third quarter with a left ankle sprain.
"They did a good job of putting pressure on me, "Yates said.
The pressure definitely affected the turnover margin, as Yates threw two picks facing the relentless Gamecock pressure. However, he also went on to complete 22-of-43 passes, for 285 yards and a touchdown – and perhaps should have had a couple more. And in the fourth quarter, Yates' toughness and effectiveness was remarkable.
Brandon Tates' head injury and Hakeem Nicks ankle sprain added to the list of Tar Heels suffering injuries this season, but perhaps the most bruised part of the Tar Heels are their emotions.
"Being close, that's not good enough anymore." Kentwan Balmer said, and it seemed he spoke for many of the Tar Heel players, who were clearly hurting after the game. "Every single one of these games hurt," Yates said.
"I'm extraordinarily proud of our team's effort," Davis said. "They lay it on the line every single game and there's not one kid that walks back in that locker room that they don't leave everything they have on the field."