UNC reverts to old ways in loss to Duke

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 30, 2013 

— North Carolina turned around its season only after it eliminated the kinds of mistakes that led to loss after loss in September and October. In some of the worst possible moments on Saturday, though, the Tar Heels reverted to their mistake-prone ways during their 27-25 loss to Duke.

At times at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, UNC appeared to be playing two games – one against the Blue Devils, who overcame deficits early and late, and one against itself. The damage the Tar Heels inflicted on themselves would have been costly on any Saturday. It was especially so against Duke, which doesn’t often make mistakes.

“You know they’re going to be sound,” Larry Fedora, UNC’s second-year head coach, said afterward. “And when you have nine penalties and you miss a field goal and you drop a touchdown pass and you drop two interceptions, they’re going to win a football game. That’s what happened today.”

Fedora listed all of the mistakes that will likely play on a loop in his mind, over and over. One he didn’t mention might have been the Tar Heels’ greatest gaffe.

The Tar Heels were in the midst of one of their most successful drives of the game midway through the fourth quarter, and Khris Francis’ 3-yard run would have given them a 3rd-and-2 from the Duke 9-yard line. At the end of Francis’ run, though, Russell Bodine, UNC’s junior center, committed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

With the play over, Bodine shoved David Helton, a Duke linebacker, to the ground. Fedora said afterward that he didn’t hear a whistle blow the play dead, and some of Bodine’s teammates said the same thing.

James Hurst, UNC’s senior left tackle, was among those who said he didn’t hear a whistle. Hurst said Bodine was just trying to finish the play, and trying “to be physical and be nasty.”

The play cost UNC 15 yards. Instead of a 3rd-and-2 from the 9, the Tar Heels’ next play was a 3rd-and-17 from the 24. Thomas Moore, the UNC kicker, made a 37-yard field goal moments later to give UNC a 25-24 lead.

“That killed (the drive), man,” Marquise Williams, the UNC quarterback, said of Bodine’s penalty. “We were down there, we wanted to go in and score (a touchdown). I knew we were going to score. But that penalty killed us.”

Bodine’s penalty was one of nine UNC committed, for 85 yards, and it was reminiscent of the kind of plays the Tar Heels often made during their 1-5 start. In recent weeks, during a five-game winning streak, UNC had been playing with more savvy.

Outside of a disastrous stretch early in the fourth quarter of a victory at Pitt, the Tar Heels had been playing like a more mature, smarter team during the past month. That changed on Saturday.

“It’s really frustrating,” Hurst said. “And we think we beat ourselves. They obviously played a great game, and did a lot of good stuff, but we had some really (untimely) penalties that really hurt us.”

Bodine’s penalty was hardly the only lapse. UNC committed three penalties on kickoff returns, and those gave the Tar Heels poor field position. There were also the mistakes that didn’t show up in the box score – the dropped interceptions that Fedora referenced, and the dropped touchdown pass.

That – the dropped touchdown – came early in the third quarter, with the Tar Heels trailing 24-15. Williams, who labored through accuracy issues and at that point was in the midst of nine consecutive incomplete passes, threw one of his best passes of the day down the right sideline.

T.J. Logan, a freshman running back, was open. The pass bounced off Logan’s hands and fell harmlessly to the ground. Had he caught it, it would have resulted in a 37-yard touchdown. One play later, the Tar Heels failed to convert on fourth down.

“I just didn’t look it in,” Logan said. “Hit me right in the hands. ’Quise threw a great ball, so it’s my fault. … It’s definitely frustrating. Because you go over it in practice. We had the right read. So, just not finishing kind of upsets me.”

It was that kind of afternoon, mostly, for the Tar Heels – an afternoon of missed opportunities, what-ifs and doomed plays that are likely to haunt Fedora and his team for a while. Quarter after quarter, series after series, UNC outdid its previous mistakes with another one, and then another one.

Logan’s dropped touchdown pass. Bodine’s penalty. And, on Duke’s winning drive, a dropped interception. On that play – a 1st-and-10 from the Duke 38 – Tre Boston, the senior safety, nearly intercepted an Anthony Boone pass. Instead it was merely a pass breakup, and the Blue Devils continued on.

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

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