Optipessimism Week 8: Carolina-Clemson

Trailing just 24-17 at the start of the third quarter, Clemson began their second half effort by going three and out. A small butterfly jumped somewhere in my stomach; could this be the game where the UNC defense puts on an inspired performance and the offense does just enough for the win? Could this be the signature win on an otherwise-marred season? Could this be the Tar Heels that, after suffering under the weight of NCAA allegations, a dismissed head coach, a maligned secondary, and a trying-really-hard interim head coach, turn the corner on a dismal season with a massive upset of a top ten team?

When Clemson got the ball back about a minute later, thanks to the anemic UNC offense, they ran the ball once for no gain. This was good news: maybe Clemson was going to go Miami from last week and play hyperconservative. Then Clemson coach Dabo Swinney remembered that the UNC secondary is awful and bites on everything. Swinney dialed up a trick play – a toss reverse pass. Boom. 39-yard completion downfield to DeAndre Hopkins. Two plays later, touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff return, returner Charles Brown left the ball out, got hit, fumbled, and Clemson recovered. Two players later, quarterback Tajh Boyd found a shockingly wide open tight end for the touchdown. What was once a close game was now suddenly out of reach, and I developed an intense interest in carpet fibers. In honor of the crapfest that was this game, this post will be entirely pictureless. Sorry I’m not sorry.

Thus is the nature of Carolina football these days. Look, all credit goes to Clemson – they are deservedly ranked among the nation’s top ten. With a ridiculously talented wide receiver named Sammy Watkins, an athletic quarterback and a crazy opportunistic defense, not many teams will win shootouts with Clemson.  Much of the credit for Carolina’s six turnovers goes to the Clemson defense; Clemson DE Kourtnei “yes that’s actually how you spell it” Brown had a stellar game, creating two crucial turnovers that essentially decided the game by themselves. Renner, Bernard, and Charles Brown all helped, demonstrating poor ball security in all areas. In his postgame comments, soon-to-be-ex-interim-coach Everett Withers seemed at a loss for words on the turnover woes. At least some of this has to go on the coaching staff, but I’m not sure how much.

On to a short Optipessimism, because there honestly isn’t much to talk about with this game. If Rex Ryan were coaching the Tar Heels, he’d take the game ball, the game tape, and probably a pair of blood libations from coordinators John Shoop and Art Kaufmann and bury the lot of it.

Simply put, Carolina got curb-stomped by a dramatically superior Clemson team.

Optimism: After being MIA the last two weeks, TJ Thorpe returned to returning kickoffs. His first kickoff? 100 yards for the touchdown, straight ahead and down the sideline.

Pessimism: Uh… WHY WAS OUR BEST SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER ON THE SIDELINE AT ALL!? Does he have two legs? Yes? Then he should be returning everything. When asked why Brown started the game returning kicks, Withers said, “TJ put one on the ground, so Charles went in. Today, Charles put one on the ground, so TJ went back in.” I’m sorry, but that makes no sense whatsoever. If you follow Withers’ logic on this, quarterback Bryn Renner should have been pulled after the first quarter in favor of Braden Hanson. Gio Bernard should have been pulled in favor of Ryan Houston. This makes no sense. You put your best players, who give you the best chance to win, on the field. End of story. (Well, unless they’re smoking crack or dealing stolen computers. You know.)

Optimism: Undervalued WRs Jhay Boyd and Erik Highsmith had themselves a pair of good games. Between the two, they totaled 10 receptions, 148 yards and 2 touchdowns. I guess we can say pretty safely that 2 Carolina receivers equals one Dwight Jones, who was bracketed all day by double-coverage.

Pessimism: Every time someone has said “Renner is regressing,” I’ve covered both of my ears with my hands and started yelling “I CAN’T HEAR YOU I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” Please forgive me. I’m a 23-year-old Ravens and Tar Heels fan. In my remembered lifetime, I’ve never experienced what it’s like to cheer for a truly elite quarterback. I want one so badly that Renner’s astounding opening day performance against JMU (22-23, 277 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT) bought him a full eight weeks before I felt compelled to agree. Now: Renner has regressed. He looks jumpy and scared. He repeatedly underthrew receivers because he was throwing off his back foot. His mechanics look off – he overpowers and sails simple out-route passes, underthrows deep balls that really require the hop step he has yet to learn, and has a nasty penchant for floating balls into the middle of the field.

Do I believe Renner is Carolina’s quarterback of the future? Undoubtedly. Do I believe Renner should be replaced by backup quarterback Braden Hanson, or worse, burn the redshirt of athletic QB Marquise Williams? Absolutely not. Renner is The Man (or at least the sidekick to the true The Man, Dwight Jones), and will continue to hold that title through the season and the offseason. Renner has a great work ethic and will hopefully come back next season with a more complete set of physical skills; he’ll need it with the total coaching staff turnover that’s on the way.  But right now, he’s often painful to watch. Really, though, that’s not a syndrome unique to Renner – the whole team is painful to watch.

Optimism: Clemson’s run game went nowhere. As has been the refrain all season, the Carolina run defense played a stellar game. On the season, Carolina is giving up just 3.1 rush yards per carry, good for 20th in the country. But then again, most teams decide, “hey, why run when you can pass?” Which leads me to…

Pessimism: The Carolina secondary is, quite simply, not good enough. They aren’t good enough to keep up with teams with any semblance of an offensive line, because they can’t get pressure on the quarterback with any less than 6 rushers. They can’t cover for more than a second. Worst of all, their tackling is horrible. Over the last three weeks, teams have seized on this last criticism, throwing repeatedly to the edge on bubble screens and quick-hitting jailbreak screens and daring the corners to tackle. When UNC starts to bite hard on these, an easy touchdown is waiting on the screen-and-go. Carolina is 106th in D-1 in my amateur analysis in yards allowed on pass defense, good for dead last in the ACC – worse than Duke. Part of that is a product of the bend-but-don’t-break system, but as a comparison, Carolina is in the bottom third of the ACC in every other relevant pass defense category. I knew pass defense would be a weakness, but my god. This is supposed to be a talented team.

Optimism: For all my harping, the defense played well through the first half. Holding Clemson to just 24, only 14 of which were actually on the defense, is a pretty impressive feat.

Pessimism: The fact that I’m taking solace that Miami destroyed Georgia Tech is an indicator of how badly this season has gone south. As Withers said in his postgame interview, “there are 34 more days left in the season.” I’m counting down until Shoop and Kaufmann pack their things and head out of town.

About Nate

I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010. I've written about the UNC-Duke rivalry since my best friend from high school took his talents to Durham the same year I went to Carolina. Astoundingly, we remain friends in part due to a moratorium on talking around Duke-Carolina games. Though capable of rationally approaching the rivalry, I generally prefer low-intellect vitriol, because it makes me feel better about myself. Visit my blog at http://thebestmedicineis.wordpress.com
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One Response to Optipessimism Week 8: Carolina-Clemson

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  1. TarHeelAlex says:

    I just don’t what to say to try to justify things at this point. One game’s failings is fine-it happens. But getting beat-no crushed-in the same manner all the time is not acceptable. It is shocking that all of our supposed “talent” is used so ineffectively both in practice and through the schemes that are run. At this point, I’ve swung to the “clean house” mentality. My high hopes for the season have been shattered and the result is I think pretty much this entire staff should go. I would keep Browning, Pittman, Mogridge and Robinson. Everyone else-especially those coaching secondary: ie Withers and Douglas-and Shoop have got to go.

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