UNC comeback too little, too late against Louisville

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 16, 2012 

— No one could explain it. Not North Carolina coach Larry Fedora. Not his players. One by one, they tried to describe what went wrong during the first half of North Carolina’s 39-34 defeat against Louisville here on Saturday, and they couldn’t.

“I don’t know,” Tar Heels linebacker Tommy Heffernan said. “Missed assignments, No. 1.”

A few minutes later, senior receiver Erik Highsmith attempted to answer the same question.

“I really don’t know,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “I really don’t know what was going on.”

Perhaps Fedora found the most fitting words to describe a half he’d rather forget, but likely won’t for a long time.

“It was lack of effort, lack of intensity, lack of passion, lack of enthusiasm.,” he said. “A lot of mental mistakes. You name it. Whatever could go wrong, went wrong in the first half.”

The Tar Heels nearly pulled off a historic comeback victory. Highsmith nearly caught a touchdown pass that would have given UNC the lead with less than two minutes to play. The Heels nearly won a game they shouldn’t have had a chance to win.

Yet they were so far away during the first half from resembling the kind of team Fedora hopes UNC will be. Fedora’s creed of “smart, fast, physical” football was absent at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on Saturday. At least for the first 30 minutes.

The Heels did not play with intelligence. Or with speed. Or with enough physicality to slow down Louisville, which scored on all six of its first-half possessions, amassed 360 yards of offense and built a 36-7 lead at the break.

That represented UNC’s largest halftime deficit since 2006, when it trailed Clemson 35-0 at the half. It also conjured memories of the Heels’ trip here in 2005, when they trailed Louisville 38-7 at halftime before losing 69-14.

Fedora, known for his energy, released his fury at halftime.

“I wasn’t calm,” Fedora said. “I don’t remember the first words I said. But I wasn’t calm at all – mainly with the coaches, about getting things addressed, simplifying things, making the adjustments we needed to make.”

Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner said Fedora told his players to “check your manhood.”

“He challenged all of us,” Renner said. “How hard are we going to play, and what kind of character do we have as a team.”

UNC’s first two touchdowns of the second half made the score more respectable, but they didn’t bring the Tar Heels all that close to threatening Louisville. The momentum shifted for good, though, when UNC running back Romar Morris blocked a Louisville punt near the goal line early in the fourth quarter.

The Heels recovered and Renner threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Eric Ebron that cut the Cardinals’ lead to 39-27. After a stop, Morris punctuated a 93-yard drive with a 50-yard touchdown reception that made it 39-34 after the Heels’ two-point conversion attempt failed.

Louisville fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and UNC recovered. The Heels made it as far as the 4-yard line, where Renner’s 4th-and-goal pass to Highsmith fell incomplete in the end zone after Louisville cornerback Andrew Johnson ripped the ball from Highsmith’s hands.

“At first glance I thought he had it,” Renner said.

So did Highsmith, who said it was a play “that I’ve got to come down with.”

“I had it,” he said. “I caught it. Just coming down, he got it out. Made a big play on it.”

The Tar Heels could have won the game with that play, but they lost it during the first two quarters, which were among the worst for any UNC football team in recent memory. Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw for 218 of his 279 yards in the first half, when he also threw all three of his touchdown passes. Louisville gained 360 of its 462 yards of offense during the first half.

The Tar Heels committed two turnovers in the first half and, defensively, allowed Louisville players to run unattended, wide open. Cardinals running back Jeremy Wright practically walked into the end zone midway through the second quarter to give his team a 29-0 lead.

“God-awful,” Fedora said of his team’s defensive performance in the first half.

He was proud, he said, that the Tar Heels fought back – that they had a chance to win. But even UNC’s brilliant second half performance, fueled by a blocked punt and 20 fourth-quarter points, wasn’t enough. After a dreadful first half, the Heels’ comeback efforts proved too little, too late.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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