Larry Fedora kept repeating some of the same phrases Monday, bemoaning North Carolina’s inability to master the “small things” and the “details.”
Fedora, in his third season as UNC’s coach, repeated that word – “details,” or the singular version of it – no fewer than 12 times during his weekly news conference. So that’s where the focus is, on solving the persistent breakdowns that have plagued the Tar Heels during a three-game losing streak.
On Saturday, during a 34-17 loss to Virginia Tech, the “small things” that went bad were nearly innumerable. Some included: pre-snap movement that led to a false start penalty. Improper footwork. A receiver running an incorrect route that proved costly.
Fedora has said that led to backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky throwing an interception that the Hokies returned for a touchdown. It happened just before halftime and further deflated the Tar Heels after a long, miserable first half.
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“It was just a small detail (of) a guy not doing exactly the way he practiced it, and it’s six going the other way,” Fedora said. “So it’s just another example of us shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Fedora repeated that phrase, too.
“It would be easy if it was just one guy (making mistakes),” he said. “We could replace one guy. But that’s not the way it is. We take turns shooting ourselves in the foot right now. The good thing is that everything that’s sitting there is correctable. We’ve just got to get it corrected.”
Fedora said these kinds of things after a 70-41 defeat at East Carolina, and after a 50-35 defeat at Clemson. If there has been progress in recent weeks, it can be measured by the fact that every week, it seems, a different calamity befalls the Tar Heels.
After a rash of defensive breakdowns doomed UNC against ECU, the Tar Heels hurt themselves with 15 penalties at Clemson. After all those penalties, it was then the “small things” gone wrong against Virginia Tech.
Some of the other problems haven’t gone away, though. UNC still committed 10 penalties Saturday, and the defensive breakdowns still happen, although there were a lot fewer against Virginia Tech.
The loss against the Hokies provided UNC with its ugliest performance on offense yet. The Tar Heels averaged 4.9 yards per play and finished with 323 yards – their fourth-fewest under Fedora.
UNC failed to score on 10 consecutive drives, a stretch that included six punts, three failed fourth-down conversion attempts and Trubisky’s interception. The first two drives were three-and-outs, and those happened amid UNC’s usual early game quarterback rotation.
Trubisky has entered the game on the third series every week, with Marquise Williams, the starter, re-entering after that. The rotation hasn’t led to much production. Fedora said UNC “may” change its approach to the rotation, but he again defended it.
He said it’s a good thing for Trubisky to get some early work. A good thing, too, for Williams to get some early rest because “he’s carrying a load right now,” Fedora said.
“So I don’t think it’s a bad thing for him, either,” Fedora said. “And again, whether people think it’s working or not, I mean, we haven’t been successful. So you can say that’s the reason we’re not successful. I don’t think that has anything to do with the reason that we’re not successful right now.”
Fedora’s explanation for the lack of success focused on those details UNC can’t seem to master. The offensive line, especially, has been prone to breakdowns – mental and physical – that have hampered the offense’s ability to create momentum.
On the the first play from scrimmage Saturday, for instance, Virginia Tech’s defensive line overwhelmed the Tar Heels up front. Williams was hit nearly immediately after receiving the snap. He fumbled, the Hokies recovered and then scored moments later.
Landon Turner, the right guard who returned after missing UNC’s two previous games, said the same thing Fedora said: that “little things” gone wrong are the problem.
“It’s taking bad steps,” Turner said. “Because the first two steps are everything. Six inches changes the whole play. Bad pass sets. Over-setting. Letting guys beat you inside and outside.
“And then we were dropping balls with the receivers. Little things like bad block reads. You know, everyone had something in the game. That’s what was so frustrating.”
Before the season, Fedora said the success of the offensive line would define the direction of the season. Five games in, the offensive line remains among the most troubling units on the team.
Injuries have been an issue. Youth and inexperience have, too.
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” Fedora said. “I mean, it was good to have Landon back to get some stability up there. But we’re still (making) too many mistakes. And again, it goes back to those details – just the small things that you get frustrated with.”