For one of the first times in what has become a miserable season at North Carolina, the literal distance between victory and defeat could be measured: six inches here on a potential fumble return for a touchdown; a few feet there on an overthrown pass to an open receiver in the end zone.
The Tar Heels were close enough on a couple of plays, at least, to ponder “what if” following their 20-14 defeat against Virginia on Saturday at Kenan Stadium. In the figurative sense, though, those close calls offered a fitting illustration of UNC’s reality, which Larry Fedora described afterward.
“There is no margin of error for our team right now,” said Fedora who, in his sixth season at UNC (1-6, 0-4 ACC), is headed toward the worst finish of his head coaching career.
During four seasons at Southern Mississippi and through five full seasons at UNC, Fedora’s teams have finished with a winning record in every year except for one. He has never endured what he is enduring now: the injuries, the agonizing string of defeats, the inability to muster much of anything on offense.
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Entering Saturday, the Tar Heels’ winning streak against Virginia, seven games strong before UNC’s defeat, seemed like a distant memory. It has been since last November, after all, that UNC has beaten any major-conference team, and now that streak of futility stands at nine games.
The most recent of those defeats, on Saturday, came with a new script, at least. This wasn’t the sort of runaway, lopsided defeat that UNC endured at Georgia Tech two weeks ago, or here against Notre Dame last week. This time the Tar Heels gave themselves a late chance. It was progress.
Their defense, which played admirably outside of allowing an 81-yard touchdown in the third quarter, nearly scored a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes, when M.J. Stewart, the senior cornerback, recovered a fumble and raced toward an open end zone before realizing he’d stepped out of bounds.
The play dead, along with the hope of scoring a touchdown that might have brought some lasting joy in these dismal times, Stewart threw the ball the length of the field, toward the end zone he never had a chance to enter. A moment of frustration, he said.
“I thought, finally have a chance to get into the end zone,” Stewart said of his ball-toss. “ ... That was just frustration from that play, not necessarily the season.”
Moments later, UNC forced a legitimate turnover, anyway, and its offense, plagued for weeks by injuries, inexperience and poor execution, moved to the Virginia 37-yard line but no farther. The Tar Heels’ final drive ended when Brandon Harris, the senior quarterback, was sacked on a fourth-and-long.
He went down after Chris Peace, the Cavaliers’ linebacker, briefly grabbed Harris’ facemask. Had an official called a penalty, UNC would have had a first down 22 yards away from the goal line, with about a minute to play. But that whistle, and that penalty call, never came.
“They felt like the quarterback in that situation was a runner and (the official) didn’t feel like he grabbed the facemask,” Fedora said.
And what did Fedora think?
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” he said.
Perhaps that moment cost UNC a chance to win the game. Perhaps it didn’t, given the Tar Heels’ offensive woes.
Either way, Fedora for weeks has sounded like a man tired of the excuses, and tired of the defeats. He has avoided blaming injuries – 16 UNC players have been lost for the season, and nine would-be starters sat out on Saturday – and inexperience for UNC’s misfortune. Yet even Fedora had to smile on Saturday at the cursed nature of his team’s on-field misfortune.
“When things aren’t going your way, it’s always just the little things,” Fedora said. “It’s M.J.’s (fumble recovery), if he’s six inches farther in, he’s taking that the distance and that may be the game-winning play.
“But there are a lot of those things that happen out there in a game. But when things aren’t going your way, they’re magnified. And somebody’s got to make one of those plays. In a tight game like that, somebody’s got to, and we didn’t do that.”
In past weeks, especially the past two, a play here or there might not have mattered, anyway. That they would have mattered on Saturday is a sign of progress, however small. And yet the Tar Heels’ beleaguered offense, usually so formidable during Fedora’s first five seasons, faltered again.
The struggles of the offense long ago ceased to be surprising, what with the decimated receiving corps, the sometimes-porous (and injured) offensive line and the inexperience at quarterback. Virginia’s sound defense, though, made UNC play especially poorly – especially in its passing game.
Harris, the quarterback, passed for only 46 yards. He threw three interceptions, two of them on deep passes toward well-covered receivers. The Cavaliers returned those three interceptions for a combined 56 yards – which meant that Virginia generated more yardage off of UNC’s quarterback than the Tar Heels did.
“It’s not very good,” said Harris, who started for the first time since UNC’s season-opening loss against California, and started in part because Chazz Surratt, who started the past five games, was recovering from an illness. “I don’t care whether you’re getting hit in the pocket or what have you … you can’t turn the ball over.”
On another Saturday, Fedora might have benched Harris and tried something else. On this Saturday, though, Fedora stuck with Harris, and afterward Fedora played the role of a supportive parent, one trying to instill confidence instead of erode it.
UNC’s season is now more than halfway complete. It must win the rest of its games to finish with a 6-6 record. The Tar Heels’ annual goal of winning the Coastal Division weeks ago became a lost cause. Now the goals seem to be about incremental improvement, and sticking together, and continuing to try.
For UNC, the effort was there on Saturday, at least, even if the execution wasn’t. This isn’t like 2014, when Fedora dealt with something of a mutiny – a divided locker room split between older players, ones recruited by former head coach Butch Davis, and the younger ones that Fedora brought to UNC.
“We’re all behind each other, pushing each other forward,” J.K. Britt, a junior safety, said on Saturday. “Because we know as a group, if we split everything goes downhill.”
And so the players are still saying the right things, and they appear to have remained united. They entered Saturday amid a three-game losing streak, yet still mustered enough of a push in the final minutes to give UNC hope that maybe this Saturday would be different than the past three.
Then, just as quickly as that hope arrived, it was gone. The game ended after another what-if – the facemask penalty that wasn’t. The Tar Heels were as close as they’d been to victory in a while and now, with Virginia Tech and Miami upcoming, the end of their futility seems farther away than it has in this long fall.