UNC coach Larry Fedora encouraged by 'bright spots' in South Carolina loss

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 2, 2013 

— Larry Fedora studied the missed opportunities, the blown coverage that led to long scoring plays and all the disappointment from North Carolina’s season-opening defeat at South Carolina, and amid it all he found hope. It could have been worse, he said on Monday.

In the moments after the Tar Heels’ 27-10 defeat against the Gamecocks last Thursday, Fedora, UNC’s second-year coach, said his program still had a “long way” to go before becoming what he envisions it will be. On the macro scale, that remains true.

After a weekend of reflection and review, though, Fedora on Monday spoke with optimism. Moving toward UNC’s home opener on Saturday against Middle Tennessee State, Fedora and his players put a positive spin on what they endured at South Carolina.

“I don’t think that we’re that far away,” he said. “We have to play much better than we did, and that was the disappointing thing was in our execution in all three phases. But there were some really bright spots in the film. There were some good things that happened.”

Asked to name those things, Fedora went down a list: The play of freshman receiver Jonathan “Bug” Howard. The way UNC’s rebuilt offensive line handled South Carolina’s defensive pressure. The effort on special teams. The overall play of the defense, outside of allowing those game-changing plays.

“I thought, defensively, if you look at what we did, other than four plays, we did some really good things,” Fedora said. “We just gave up four big plays. And if you don’t give those four big plays up, you’re sitting in here talking about a different defense.”

Two plays hurt UNC the most – the 65-yard touchdown pass it allowed on the third play of the game, and the 75-yard touchdown run it surrendered in the third quarter, after cutting South Carolina’s lead to 20-10. Those plays accounted for 140 of the Gamecocks’ 406 yards of offense.

With those long touchdowns, South Carolina averaged 6.9 yards per play. On the Gamecocks’ other 57 plays, they averaged 4.8 yards per play.

That still would have been better than UNC’s output on offense. The Tar Heels’ 10 points were the fewest of Fedora’s tenure at UNC, and their 293 yards of offense were their fewest since generating 193 yards during a 13-0 loss against N.C. State in 2011. UNC gained at least 410 yards in every game last season.

“We had opportunities to make big plays,” Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner said of the loss against South Carolina. “And in a game like that, we needed a big play and we just didn’t connect on one.”

Fedora acknowledged that UNC adjusted its offensive approach to account for South Carolina’s speed and skill on the defensive line. The Tar Heels didn’t often attempt down-field passes, and instead tried to attack the Gamecocks with screen passes near the sideline.

Last week, Fedora had described the South Carolina game as a “measuring stick” for his program. After evaluating his team’s play, though, he didn’t believe it offered an accurate measurement.

“If we played the best we could play, and we lost like that, then hey – you might want to hang your head,” Fedora said. “But that’s not the way we played. If we would have played a really good football game and walked out of there with the same score, I would have been wondering myself.

“But I’m not wondering now, because you can see it on film and it’s all correctable.”

When UNC returned from Columbia, S.C., it held a variety of team and position meetings on Friday. Kareem Martin, the senior defensive end, said the coaching staff reminded players of their potential. When the defense met, Martin said, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning started with the game-changing plays UNC allowed.

“It seems like on the big plays we were always off like one person wasn’t in synch,” Martin said. “And he was explaining once everybody gets on the same page, we’re going to be a good defense.”

UNC isn’t there yet, though. The season opener proved that much.

Yet Fedora found enough positives to make him believe that the Tar Heels aren’t all that far away, after all. At the least, their most difficult test of the season – on the road against a top-10 opponent – is already in the past.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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