UNC, thanks to simplified approach, on cusp of bowl eligibility after 1-5 start

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 20, 2013 

— Larry Fedora coined the phrase when his North Carolina team was at its lowest point, when it became apparent that the only thing the Tar Heels had to play for was the one game in front of them – the one game that separated them from sinking farther into the abyss.

UNC started the season with grand aspirations. The Tar Heels spoke of competing for the ACC’s Coastal Division championship, of playing in a marquee bowl game, of taking another step forward after winning eight games a season ago.

Yet after a last-second loss to Miami on Oct. 17, UNC was 1-5. Those goals faded. Since, Fedora and his players have rarely spoken about any other goal than winning the next game. It’s among the oldest sporting clichés – taking it one game at a time – but the mantra has served the Tar Heels well. Since adopting a simple weekly slogan – “be 1-0” – they haven’t lost.

And now here the Tar Heels sit, their record even again after four consecutive victories. With a win on Saturday against Old Dominion, UNC would achieve bowl eligibility. Reaching that point seemed somewhat of an afterthought entering the season, but it is significant now for two primary reasons.

For one, UNC’s season appeared all but over just weeks ago, after that defeat against Miami. Second, the Tar Heels due to NCAA sanctions were ineligible a season ago to play in the postseason, and so a bowl game this year would be a first under Fedora.

“It gives us something a little bit more to play for,” Kareem Martin, the senior defensive end, said earlier this week of the possibility of becoming bowl eligible on Saturday. “Every year you’re playing to go to a bowl game. That sixth win is tough – it’s been really tough for us to get this year.

“We got off to a slow start, and to finally be in a position to get the sixth win just makes this game that much bigger.”

During the first half of the season, the Tar Heels often found ways to lose. They surrendered a 13-point lead in a loss at Georgia Tech. They committed penalties in three consecutive losses that negated touchdowns. They made confounding mistakes, like the delay of game penalty late in the fourth quarter that helped set up Miami’s game-winning touchdown drive.

In UNC’s past four games, though, the Tar Heels have found ways to win. The defense, which had a knack for allowing long, game-changing plays earlier in the season, has nearly eliminated those kinds of plays. Offensively, Marquise Williams, the sophomore quarterback who took over for the injured Bryn Renner, has provided a spark – especially with his mobility.

And special teams, too, have been integral to UNC’s ascent. Ryan Switzer, a freshman receiver, returned two punts for touchdowns in the victory at Pittsburgh on Saturday – and the second of those, a 61-yarder, broke a tie with about five minutes to play.

“As this team has grown throughout the season and through all of the adversity that we’ve overcome – you grow closer as a team,” Fedora said of finding ways to win. “You start trusting each other a little bit more. You care more about each other because of all the work and all that you’re putting into it. And you just give a little bit more.”

Fedora is happy to speak about how far his team has come, but he has adopted a different approach when describing where his team might be doing. He refuses to look farther than one game into the future.

After practice on Wednesday, he smiled when asked whether he’d mentioned the words “bowl eligibility” to his players this week. He had not, he said, before repeating the familiar: “1-0.” He did acknowledge earlier the week that being 1-0 on Saturday – as opposed to previous weeks – would come with the reward of qualifying for a bowl.

“To be 1-0 this week would be really, really a great thing,” Fedora said. “It will be outstanding. And again, I hate to do that to you all, but I don’t want to slide anywhere else. I promise you. I am going to stick to it.

“We’re going to be 1-0, and that’s where all the focus is going to be.”

Narrowing the focus has been a key element in the Tar Heels resurgence in recent weeks. On defense, especially, the coaches have scaled down the game plans, and taken a more simple approach.

Some of the Tar Heels’ struggles earlier this season, both players and coaches have said, could be attributable to breakdowns in execution because of confusion. In recent weeks, that has been less of an issue, because there has been more of an emphasis on finding what works and sticking with it.

“We can’t change a bunch of stuff,” Vic Koenning, the assistant coach most responsible for UNC’s defense, said on Wednesday. “Our guys can’t just go in there like they do in the pros and you’ve got about 50 different plays and looks and wrinkles and stuff. We’re going to do what we do.”

Earlier in the year, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. What the Tar Heels did was struggle to stop big plays on defense, and fail to generate positive game-changing plays of their own on offense and special teams.

More often than not, the Tar Heels found ways to lose. Now they’re doing the opposite, and the turnaround has them on the cusp of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2011.

“To flip the season around like that, from guys just not knowing what’s going on, if we’re going to make a bowl, to fighting back, it shows the heart that we have on this team,” Tre Boston, the senior safety, said on Wednesday. “ Just never give up.”

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

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