CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina began the season with the grand aspiration of winning the Coastal Division and playing in the ACC championship game. After enduring an embarrassing 55-31 defeat against East Carolina on Saturday, though, the Tar Heels are now focused on saving their season.
UNC entered its game against the Pirates as double-digit favorites. The Tar Heels had defeated ECU in each of the past four seasons, and they had won by an average of nearly 20 points.
At the start of the season, UNC’s game against ECU appeared like a reprieve amid the most difficult portion of the schedule. The Tar Heels traveled to Georgia Tech last week, and on Saturday they will play at Virginia Tech. After that, UNC hosts Miami on Oct. 17 in a nationally televised Thursday night game.
UNC players expressed disbelief Saturday that they had lost for the third time in four games. But they understand, too, that a 1-3 start could quickly turn into a 1-5 start.
“We’re starting off 1-3, and now we’ve got two big conference opponents – two teams that are really going to decide the fate of the ACC,” UNC senior defensive end Kareem Martin said Saturday. “So we know these next two weeks are the biggest of the season. We’ve got to bow up as a team.”
After his team’s 28-20 defeat at Georgia Tech last week, UNC coach Larry Fedora said he expected the Tar Heels to get off to a better start than 1-2. Fedora, then, certainly didn’t expect this: a demoralizing loss against an opponent UNC had beaten soundly in recent seasons.
From the beginning Saturday, UNC failed to match the Pirates’ energy and level of execution. On its first drive, ECU moved quickly and methodically on its way to a touchdown, and before the Tar Heels began to find their offensive rhythm, they already trailed 14-0.
Effort wasn’t a problem during UNC’s season-opening defeat at South Carolina or in the loss at Georgia Tech. Yet it appeared to be lacking Saturday, and Fedora afterward spoke of a need to play with more energy and urgency.
That’s especially true now, with UNC’s season at stake. The Tar Heels last lost three of their first four games in 2007, when they finished 4-8 in Butch Davis’ first season. A losing record was somewhat expected then, in a transition year under a first-year head coach.
This season, though, the Tar Heels hoped to surpass the success they experienced in Fedora’s first season. During his postgame address to his teammates, A.J. Blue, UNC’s fifth-year senior running back, spoke of how the Tar Heels should best handle the adversity, which has come as a surprise to Blue and his teammates.
“Blue being a five-year senior, our captain, he came in and talked to us, made sure we got our head up and let us know that it’s us – we’ve got to come together,” sophomore receiver Quinshad Davis said. “We can’t just point fingers or anything like that.
“We’ve got to come together as a team and see what it’s going to take to finish the rest of the season out.”
UNC struggled in so many aspects Saturday that Fedora had trouble identifying any positives. It was difficult, too, for him to say what went wrong “when everything went wrong,” he said.
After Blue addressed the team, Fedora did, too. He said he told his players that they would learn about themselves and that how they responded from Saturday would help determine their identity.
“We’re going to find out who we are,” Fedora said. “You find out about yourself when things are bad, and right now they’re bad. So we’re going to find out about each guy, we’re going to find out about myself, we’re going to find out about the rest of the coaches.”
Four games into a season that began with grand expectations, UNC already has found out it’s perhaps farther away than anyone could have anticipated. The offensive line hasn’t jelled, the running game has gone missing and the defense, after taking a step forward against Georgia Tech, regressed significantly against ECU.
Even so, Fedora said his expectations wouldn’t change.
“Whether we meet those expectations, I don’t know,” he said. “But I can tell you this: We’re going to keep working extremely hard to meet those expectations. But I’m not going to lower my expectations because of a poor performance. That’s not going to happen.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter