UNC seeks to start over against No. 10 Miami

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2013 

— Larry Fedora repeats it every week, he said, but the message is especially important now, with four losses already behind North Carolina and one of its most difficult games of the season straight ahead.

“The goal is to be 1-0,” Fedora, the second-year UNC coach, said after practice Wednesday. “I mean, there’s really nothing else going on, so why focus on the rest of it? Why think about the rest of (the season)? Everybody else does. But you can’t do it as a football team.”

Fedora would prefer his team start over every week, to treat each game as its own season. That kind of philosophy is a cliché that a lot of coaches preach. But in some ways, it’s a philosophy that has kept UNC believing this week – believing that it can start over against No. 10 Miami on Thursday night, and believing that a lost season can be found again.

For months, UNC has placed a special emphasis on the Miami game. The university, in partnership with Chapel Hill, is hosting a pregame block party on Franklin Street, where administrators had hoped for a festive atmosphere. The Tar Heels have branded the game “Zero Dark Thursday” – a play off “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film about the killing of Osama Bin Laden – and UNC has asked fans to arrive wearing black.

The color would be appropriate, given the state of UNC’s season, but the Tar Heels are hoping – and desperately seeking – a rebirth on Thursday night at Kenan Stadium. Amid a three-game losing streak, the team’s longest since 2007, Bryn Renner and other players who have been around for a while have attempted to provide direction.

“We’ve talked about it as seniors,” Renner, the fifth-year quarterback, said recently. “Five of the last seven games are at home. And we have a chance to still get to a bowl game. And that’s our goal. That’s my goal as a quarterback and my goal as a leader of this team. We want to get to a bowl game and finish it out.”

Renner, who after suffering a foot injury sat out UNC’s 27-17 defeat at Virginia Tech, will “definitely” start against Miami, Fedora said. Renner will attempt to inject some life into an offense that ranks 76th nationally.

Offense was supposed to lead the Tar Heels this season, but it has been belied by inexperience on the offensive line, and an overall inability to run successfully. That, combined with the defense’s tendency to allow long, game-changing plays, has buried the Tar Heels at the bottom of the conference standings.

UNC’s season has become so grim that identifying positives has, at times, been impossible. Fedora said he couldn’t find any after his team’s 55-31 loss against East Carolina. The defeat at Virginia Tech, at least, left the Tar Heels with hope.

Even so, Vic Koenning, the assistant coach most responsible for the Tar Heels’ defense, recently described the task ahead of him as his “greatest challenge, without a doubt.” The breakdowns have infuriated Koenning but he has been encouraged, he said, because at least there have been fewer of them.

“Last year we were giving up six and eight big plays a game,” he said, comparing that to the two long, costly plays UNC allowed at Virginia Tech.

To be successful against Miami, the Tar Heels understand they will need to play at a level that has eluded them this season. They will need to pass well against a passing defense that, statistically, has been the best in the country. They will need to limit big plays against an offense known for producing them. They will need to avoid penalties, which have wiped away touchdowns in each of their past three games.

Fedora said Tuesday he appreciated how his team prepared. He said he liked his team’s attitude. The Tar Heels still believe that they can salvage their season.

A victory against the Hurricanes wouldn’t automatically do that, but it’d be a positive first step. It’d also likely mean that UNC’s maligned defense played its finest game of the season. It was only a year ago that UNC’s defense intercepted Miami twice, and held the Hurricanes to 14 points – their third-fewest of the season – during UNC’s 18-14 victory in South Florida.

And now?

“We’ve got to get better,” Koenning said. “We were hoping to be better on defense this year just off of maturity and knowing stuff. But we’ve actually had to be more limited (in play-calling) this year than last.”

UNC had hoped for a lot of things. That the losses of running back Gio Bernard and others wouldn’t turn out to be as crippling as they have been. That the offensive line would jell. That the passing game would be just as potent as last season, if not more so.

UNC once hoped that its game on Thursday night would carry national significance and provide a showcase for the program. Instead, now, the Tar Heels hope it provides an opportunity for a new beginning.

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

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service