After the most troubling defeat of his coaching tenure at North Carolina, Larry Fedora accepted the blame and the responsibility and said, without hesitation, that he would “have to re-evaluate the job that I do.”
“That’s what I’m concerned with right now,” Fedora said Saturday outside the locker room, surrounded by reporters after the Tar Heels’ 70-41 defeat at East Carolina. “Is I’ve got to do a better job. I’ve got to do a better job with the staff. I’ve got to do a better job with the players.
“And then we start at the top, then we’ll work our way down.”
It was a historically bad defeat. The Tar Heels allowed more points than they ever had, more first downs (39) and more yards, too. The Pirates finished with 789 yards, easily working their way into the North Carolina record book and surpassing the 669 yards – the previous record – North Carolina allowed Utah in 2004.
Losing against East Carolina in embarrassing fashion, and for the second consecutive year, was bad enough for Fedora and his team. Worse, though, is how the defeat came – amid an inconceivable number of blown defensive assignments, missed tackles and apparent malaise and apathy.
By the end, it didn’t look like the Tar Heels cared.
“We were in the game,” T.J. Thorpe, a junior receiver, said. “And they kicked it to another level of effort. And it wasn’t (anything) that they did overly well. They played a heck of a game. But we just got out-efforted on both sides of the ball.”
Thorpe told reporters he thought some teammates had quit – as if their play didn’t speak for itself. They were troubling words, but no more troubling than the actions – or inaction, rather – of Fedora’s team Saturday.
The Tar Heels simply looked lost defensively, despite having nearly two weeks to prepare for East Carolina. Under Fedora, North Carolina now is 0-3 in games after an off week.
Offensively, the final numbers didn’t look too bad – 41 points and 439 yards – but they didn’t tell the whole truth, either. The running game faltered, again, the offense lacked rhythm, and Marquise Williams, a junior quarterback, threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
Fedora couldn’t identify what most disappointed him. There were so many things.
In the short term the problems on defense – and there are many, from the lack of production up front to the blown coverages and missed assignments in the secondary – seem the most dire. Though this was, statistically, the worst defensive performance in school history, it hardly was the first time the defense has melted down during Fedora’s tenure.
In 2012, his first season, North Carolina allowed 588 yards and 68 points in a defeat against Georgia Tech. A season ago, the Tar Heels allowed 603 yards in a 55-31 defeat against East Carolina. The Pirates surpassed that yardage total during the middle of the third quarter Saturday.
“Yeah,” Fedora said when reminded that the defense continues to suffer from familiar breakdowns. “It’s a problem. It’s a problem. And we’ve got to do a better job. There’s no doubt about it. I’ve got to do a better job of coaching. So it’s on me. It really is. It’s on me.”
Vic Koenning, in his third season as North Carolina’s defensive coordinator, could do little but watch Saturday while the Pirates did whatever they wanted, it seemed, against his defense. Koenning spoke with reporters by phone after the game and said, “I couldn’t find a way to help them.”
Since Fedora arrived, the Tar Heels have employed a 4-2-5 defensive scheme that is designed, he has said, to combat spread offenses. East Carolina runs its own version of the spread, and the Tar Heels appeared more helpless against it Saturday than they did a season ago in Chapel Hill.
Fedora, though, defended Koenning.
“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. I’m talking about myself.”
Fedora and his players tried to put a positive spin on things – as positive as they could. They said the focus had to turn to the future, that there could be no dwelling – not with a game at Clemson this weekend.
Still, the performance at East Carolina calls into question the direction the Tar Heels are headed. The offensive line, which would have been young and inexperienced even at full strength, endured another loss with the injury of Jon Heck, the starting right tackle.
It’s unclear how long Heck will be out, but North Carolina already is without Landon Turner, the junior right guard. The line’s problems have affected the entire offense. The running game has stalled. Downfield passing plays haven’t had time to develop.
Defensively, there’s a longer list of issues, problems that don’t appear to have any quick-fix solutions. Fedora on Saturday was left hoping his players could just keep things together mentally.
“You hope that their spirit’s not broke,” he said. “That’s what you’ve got to figure out. So that’ll be our test, to find out who we really are. And that’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about physically. I’m talking about mentally. That’s the question.”