BLACKSBURG, Va. — In the span of about 10 seconds, perhaps a little less, Ryan Switzer made a play that provided North Carolina with hope Saturday early in the third quarter at Virginia Tech. He caught a Hokies punt on the 18, and then made one man miss, and then another.
By the time Switzer broke free on his way to an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown, a yellow flag rested on UNC’s end of the field at Lane Stadium. Block in the back. For the third consecutive week, a penalty had wiped away a Tar Heels touchdown.
Larry Fedora, UNC’s second-year coach, thought about that moment after his team’s 27-17 defeat against the Hokies. He measured his words, sitting silent for about 10 seconds. In the same amount of time, Switzer had made a play that could have made a difference. Now Fedora was trying to come up with an explanation.
“We’ve got to do a better job of coaching,” Fedora said finally. “Kids got to do a better job of playing and being more disciplined. And we’ve got to cut out just the small mistakes that we’re making. And it just has hit us in some unfortunate times.”
After their third consecutive defeat, UNC players spoke with a surprising amount of optimism. They were encouraged by what they did right, and by how third-year sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams played in place of Bryn Renner, who sat out with a foot injury.
The Tar Heels (1-4, 0-2) spoke of how close they believe they are. Yet their self-inflicted wounds suggested something to the contrary – that they still have a ways to travel before becoming a competent team, let alone one capable of winning the Coastal Division, which was their goal.
The penalty that erased Switzer’s return was just one example. There were also two blown coverages in the first half, both of which led to Virginia Tech touchdowns. The Hokies (5-1, 2-0) scored their first on a 45-yard pass from Logan Thomas to Demitri Knowles, who ran wide open between two UNC defenders.
On that play, UNC senior cornerback Jabari Price said, there had been “miscommunication.”
“Misinterpretation of the call from the sideline,” Price said. “I mean, we can’t have that.”
Neither can they have what Price described as a “missed alignment” – one that allowed Thomas to complete an 83-yard pass to Willie Byrn late in the second quarter. The Hokies made that play from their own 2, and took advantage of porous coverage in the defensive secondary. Byrn, like Knowles before him, ran past UNC’s safeties into wide open space.
“All the (missed assignments) in the secondary come from miscommunication,” Price said. “Guys not getting the call here. Guys thinking they’re going to pass it off. I mean, when a (defensive lineman) or linebacker mess up, it’s typically a first down. But we have to be perfect on the back end because when we mess up, it’s a touchdown.”
UNC stopped Byrn after an 83-yard gain. Moments later, Thomas threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Coles to give the Hokies a 21-7 lead. UNC never cut its deficit into single digits, though Switzer’s punt return for a touchdown would have, had it stood.
Fedora, at least, liked the effort. The Tar Heels lacked that last week during a 55-31 loss against ECU. UNC played with energy Saturday, but once again with the kind of recklessness that has inhibited its progress since the start of the season.
“I felt like we did a good job, for the most part,” junior Darius Lipford said of the defense. “And it was kind of similar to South Carolina (in the season opener). We played really intense. A couple of plays here or there, it would be a completely different ballgame.”
But it wasn’t a different ballgame. It was more of the same. Blown assignments on defense. Struggles on offense in the red zone, where UNC converted only one of its two trips into a touchdown. Personal foul penalties, of which UNC had two.
The final statistics suggested that perhaps UNC had made progress. It gained 376 yards, the most Virginia Tech has allowed. The Tar Heels allowed a modest 341 yards, by far the fewest they have surrendered.
“But we just made too many mistakes,” Fedora said.
That has been the theme of UNC’s season to this point. An alignment mistake turns into a long passing play for the opposition. A penalty takes away a touchdown. Those things had happened before Saturday, and they happened again.
And now the Tar Heels are in the midst of a three-game losing streak, their longest since 2007, and left to wonder again what might have been different if there hadn’t been more of the same.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter