By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, Calif. — Undoubtedly the California Golden Bears got a break in their sun-drenched opener against the North Carolina Tar Heels, but did they take advantage of it?
The Tar Heels were rocked by suspensions of 13 players including starting quarterback Chazz Surratt and defensive lineman Malik Carney due to improper benefits derived from the sale of team-issued Air Jordan tennis shoes. That created one obvious mismatch with junior quarterback Nathan Elliott facing the fastidiously prepared Golden Bears’ defense.
But while Elliott struggled until the end of the third quarter, the Bears did little outside two, early touchdowns that put the game out of reach. Down 24-3, North Carolina came up with a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to turn the final minutes anxious.
After the game, UNC’s early, offensive struggles and Cal’s uneven defense late stood out, but the Tar Heels four turnovers trumped both happenings in explaining how this one was won.
“Unfortunately, we turned the ball over four times today, and if you turn the ball over like we did, you’re going to have a hard time winning football games,” UNC coach Larry Fedora admitted. “You can still be in the game, but you’re going to have a hard time winning the football game. They didn’t turn it over and we turned it over four times.”
Elliott managed just one UNC first down before halftime, and three interceptions put the Tar Heels at a huge disadvantage on the scoreboard, trailing 17-0 at the break. With the Carolina receivers unable to create separation, and the Cal secondary jumping routes, Elliott found third downs to be disastrous.
Jaylinn Hawkins snatched Elliott’s overthrow late in the first quarter and that set up Cal’s first touchdown, Patrick Laird’s three-yard run three plays later.
Defensive end Cameron Goode joined the party in the second quarter going 23 yards with Elliott’s errant throw to give Cal a 14-0 lead.
Two other interceptions bogged down UNC’s offense that converted just one of their first 13 third down opportunities. Elliott finished 15 of 35 for 137 yards. Thirteen UNC penalties spoke to the team’s disjointed play given the numerous suspensions. But Cal never pulled away, as the Tar Heels crowded the line of scrimmage and dared Cal quarterback Ross Bowers to throw.
“We forced them to go to their quick game really the whole second half,” Fedora said. “I thought our guys played extremely well. The only other thing I would have liked to see from them would be a couple takeaways, but they played their hearts out. We were aggressive, we tackled. I thought we played really well on defense.”
The Bears head to LaVell Edwards Stadium to take on the BYU Cougars on Saturday, September 8 at 7:15 pm PDT.