By the end of another North Carolina defeat that included another second-half collapse, the magic the Tar Heels accomplished two years ago at Georgia Tech, on this very field, seemed something like a lifetime ago. Then, there was optimism, hope, belief. Now, for UNC, there is failure, fatigue and pain.
There is physical pain, that associated with the kind of injury misfortune that has befallen the Tar Heels. They arrived at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium without the services of 13 players who have been lost for the season. They were without eight starters on Saturday.
Then, equally devastating if not more so, there is the mental pain, the kind that can fester and grow. UNC endured its worst defeat of the season here, a 33-7 loss against the Yellow Jackets, and for the Tar Heels (1-4, 0-3 ACC) perhaps the worst part of a dreadful spectacle was how entirely predictable it was.
An offense devastated by injuries, with a first-year starting quarterback and a receiving corps held together by the football equivalent of duct tape, shoestrings and bubble gum, labored to do much of anything. An inconsequential touchdown with about five minutes remaining kept UNC from its first shutout under coach Larry Fedora, who is in his sixth season.
Then there was the defense: scrappy in the first half, if not valiant, but worn down in the second half, and wheezing by the merciful end. That couldn’t have been a surprise, either, given that the Tar Heels, even at their best, often allowed third-down conversions with little resistance. Georgia Tech (3-1, 2-0) held possession nearly twice as long as UNC did.
The question now, as it was after UNC lost its first two games, against California and Louisville, as it was after another loss last weekend, against Duke, is where the Tar Heels go from here. How do they keep a season that’s quickly becoming lost from turning into something worse than it already is? Fedora, for one, spoke as if he’s not hiding from the reality confronting him and his players.
“It boils down to me,” he said, unprompted, during his opening remarks to reporters. “I’ve got to do a better job of coaching. I’ve got to do a better job of coaching our staff. I’ve got to do a better job of coaching the players. And that’s my job.”
The Tar Heels have now won exactly once at Bobby Dodd Stadium in the past 20 years. The “one” represents one of the most memorable victories of Fedora’s tenure – the dramatic comeback here in 2015, a victory that helped catapult UNC to an 11-win season, one of the best in school history. There was a feeling, then, that UNC had reached a turning point, not just relative to that season but to what Fedora had been building.
In two years, the entire dynamic surrounding his program has changed. The defeat on Saturday was UNC’s seventh consecutive against a major-conference opponent. Nearly a month has passed since UNC began the season with cautious optimism, hopeful that its defense was ready to lead, and now 329 days have passed since the Tar Heels defeated a team from a Power 5 conference.
UNC’s victories in that span have come against The Citadel, last November, and against Old Dominion, earlier this season. Entering Saturday, the Tar Heels’ three defeats this season all came after they’d entered the fourth quarter with the lead. At least they didn’t have to encounter that sort of misery on Saturday, since they never led.
Injuries are a significant part of UNC’s woes, undoubtedly. And yet, even amid them – three more endured injuries on Saturday – the same problems have continued to plague UNC through the first month: an inability to stop teams on third down, general inefficiency on offense and consistent and clear fatigue problems as games wear on. Cayson Collins, a senior linebacker, said fatigue was “a huge factor” on Saturday.
“Yeah, no doubt,” Fedora said, himself addressing a (tired) elephant in the room. “Well, the defense played 44 snaps in the first half. So there was no doubt that they were going to end up wearing down. We had some opportunities to get off the field on third-and-longs, and we didn’t do that in the first half, so they were out there 44 snaps.”
The injuries, and the fatigue, have raised questions about the Tar Heels’ conditioning. Why have they so often broken down, in both a literal and figurative sense?
“I really don’t know what it is,” Collins said. “We’ve had an issue this year. It’s definitely something I’ve never seen before, with the amount of people that we’ve had get injured, the type of injuries that we’ve had and just the fatigue that we’ve experienced. I don’t know what it’s from, what’s the reason for it, but it’s definitely something we need to figure out.”
By the end on Saturday, it was difficult to remember that Georgia Tech held only a 10-0 lead near the midway point of the third quarter. And then Chazz Surratt, UNC’s second-year freshman, threw an interception. Georgia Tech turned that into a 63-yard touchdown run on its next play.
The Yellow Jackets escaped for another 60-yard run on their next drive, with the Tar Heels’ defense quickly tiring. That possession ended with a touchdown, too, and by then the only questions facing UNC were how bad the final margin might become, and whether it could muster any points.
When the Tar Heels finally did, with about five minutes remaining, a small contingent of their band played the fight song. UNC went through a tepid celebration. Soon it was over, the players saying the right things afterward, trying to put on a strong front.
“Everbody’s sticking together,” Surratt said, after he and his teammates generated 247 yards, UNC’s third-fewest in Fedora’s six seasons. “Nobody’s getting too hard on each other. Everybody is just trying to get tighter … we’ve got a lot of guys trying to pick each other up, so, just trying to be positive.”
Increasingly, that is becoming more and more challenging for the Tar Heels. They will receive no respite next weekend, what with Notre Dame visiting Kenan Stadium. What follows is a game against improved Virginia, before a difficult two-week stretch against Virginia Tech and Miami.
Who knows, by then, what UNC’s mental state might be. Or its physical state, for that matter. Two years ago, after one of the highest of highs of Fedora’s tenure, the direction of his program seemed headed only one direction. The same could be said now, too.
More than once on Saturday, Fedora said a variation of the same thing: That he’s responsible for UNC’s mess, injuries and all. What was expected to be something of a rebuilding year, though, has turned into a considerable rebuilding project, UNC’s egos as damaged as its bodies.
“Nobody feels sorry for you, so you can’t use that as an excuse,” Fedora said of the injuries. “You’ve got to find a way to get it done. I mean, progress is getting done. So we’ve got to find a way. I don’t want to be close. I don’t want any moral victories.
“I want our guys to find a way to get over the hump. And again, that’s my job.”