After he watched his team's defense sink into the abyss, falling and falling without any recovery and without any hope, at least for one game, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora stood in front of a crowd of reporters, trying to find the words.
What he could say after this, a 70-41 defeat against East Carolina?
The Tar Heels set records for yards allowed (789) and they'd never allowed more points than they did on Saturday. And they did those things despite having two weeks to prepare for a game against an opponent that embarrassed them a year ago.
That was a low point, too, that 55-31 defeat against ECU in Chapel Hill a year ago, when UNC allowed 603 yards. But this?
Those UNC players who are still around, still on the team, spent the week talking about their motivation – how this time it'd be different against the Pirates. And it was. It was different because it was worse.
The Pirates eclipsed their yardage total from last season in the third quarter. They surpassed their point total from last year against UNC with about two minutes to go in the third quarter, on a 25-yard pass from Shane Carden to Isaiah Jones that gave the Pirates a 56-27 lead.
No one had answers afterward. Not Fedora. Not any of his players. Not Vic Koenning, who spoke with reporters by phone before the team bus left for Chapel Hill. At one point, Koenning said his defense was “rattled” by the Pirates' two touchdowns late in the first half.
UNC appeared rattled throughout. The Tar Heels missed tackles. They left receivers open. They allowed the Pirates, who hadn't run for more than 208 yards this season, to run for 343 yards.
“Any way you cut it, there's nothing good about it,” Fedora said. “There's nothing I can say that's going to make it any better or to ease or take the edge off of it. I mean, we got it handed to us tonight.”
And they got it handed to them again. And again. And on it went.
Fedora accepted the blame for the defense's woeful performance. Even so, Koenning is the coach most responsible for it, and Saturday wasn't the first time under his watch that the Tar Heels turned in an embarrassing defensive performance.
Fedora defended Koenning afterward.
“He's a good football coach,” Fedora said. “He'll get it right. He'll get it right. We've got a bunch of good coaches. We just got out-coached tonight. You didn't know we had some good coaches.”
Nobody would have known anything good about UNC's defense, judging it from Saturday. It was, statistically, at least, the worst defensive performance in school history – and in a game Fedora and his team desperately wanted to win.
The players tried to put a positive spin on it afterward. They echoed Fedora's postgame talk, in which he told the team that it had to move on, that it couldn't dwell on this defeat. After all, the Tar Heels travel to Clemson next weekend.
“You can't dwell on it,” Marquise Williams, UNC's quarterback, said. “You can't be sad for the rest of your lives because ECU put up 70 points. That's football.”
Said Jeff Schoettmer, the Tar Heels' middle linebacker: “We're 0-0 in the ACC. We're trying to win the ACC Coastal championship, and we're fine right now.”
That was one way to put it. Outside of forcing turnovers, UNC's defense didn't play all that well in the team's first two games.
The problems that were evident earlier were magnified on Saturday. The Pirates averaged 8.1 yards per play. Asked if they had done anything differently from their victory last season against UNC, or if anything had changed, Tim Scott, the UNC senior safety, said nothing had.
“No,” he said, “they kept spanking us.”