Three weeks of progress of momentum, of optimism, evaporated in about three hours amid a listless performance – perhaps the worst of the season – that left North Carolina with a 47-20 defeat on Saturday against Miami.
How to make sense of this, after what the Tar Heels had accomplished in recent weeks? How to make sense of UNC's worst offensive showing under coach Larry Fedora, and of a complete breakdown following the Tar Heels' best weeks of the season?
Fedora couldn't. His players couldn't.
“It's hard to make sense of,” Fedora said. “I mean, right now today, I just have to say they whipped us. That's all I can say.”
It was the truth, at least. At one point on Saturday UNC trailed only 9-6, and there was some hope. That was after Cayson Collins, the freshman linebacker, scooped up a fumble and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter.
“For a second I feel like we had momentum,” Collins said.
But then the Tar Heels' defense began to falter and crack and the offense, never productive from the start, continued to flounder. The Tar Heels (4-5, 2-3 ACC) hung around for a while – maybe even longer than they should have given their lack of anything on offense – but, inevitably, Miami (6-3, 3-2) seized control.
The Hurricanes scored three touchdowns in the final 5 ½ minutes of the first half. One of those came on a 90-yard run from Duke Johnson, the junior running back who ran nearly untouched into the UNC record books.
It was the longest rushing touchdown the Tar Heels had ever allowed. Just another record for a defense this season that has broken records for all the wrong reasons.
“I knew he was fast,” Collins said of Johnson. “I didn't know he was that fast.”
By then Miami led 23-6 and it was 30-6 after Marquise Williams, the UNC junior quarterback, threw an interception that led to another Hurricanes touchdown just before halftime. By halftime, Johnson had run for 172 of his 177 yards. UNC, meanwhile, had 57 yards total.
The Tar Heels finished with 258 yards – their fewest under Fedora – and large chunks of those came well after Miami had put the game out of reach. Williams' 10-yard touchdown run with five minutes, 11 seconds remaining in the third quarter was the offense's first touchdown. It cut Miami's lead to 44-13.
In Fedora's seven seasons as a head coach – the first four at Southern Miss – none of his offenses had ever finished a game with fewer yards than UNC did on Saturday. He described the performance as “very poor.”
“Very disappointing,” he said. “I don't think we played well anywhere – up front, anywhere. Quarterback, running back, receivers. You know, we made a few plays there in the third and fourth quarter but we still – it was way too inconsistent to be effective as an offense.”
UNC's drive chart read like a horror story for any offensive coach. In the first half the Tar Heels' drives ended like this: punt, punt, safety, punt, punt, interception, end of half. Overall, the Tar Heels either punted or committed a turnover on eight of their 13 possessions.
Williams, normally an effective runner, gained four yards rushing on Saturday – his second-fewest of the season. He appeared to play through pain and play through injury after enduring several hard hits a week ago at Virginia, but Fedora said he was “100 percent” and Williams downplayed his health.
“I didn't play how I should have played today and I put that blame on myself,” Williams said. “Ain't no injury – (not) my health. None of that. It's just all me, man.”
The defeat brought an immediate halt the good vibes that had surrounded the Tar Heels in recent weeks. They held on two weeks ago for a victory against Georgia Tech, and then rallied a week ago in a dramatic victory at Virginia.
UNC had hope, after a miserable start to its season, of turning things around. But then came Saturday, and a performance that was as humbling as any this season. Was it the Tar Heels' worst game of the season?
“Heck, I don't know,” Fedora said.
What he did know – that his offense played as poorly as any he's ever watched as a head coach, that the defense, again, allowed game-changing big plays – was troubling enough. So was the reality that UNC had endured another defeat like this one – a loss that, again, calls into question which direction the Tar Heels are headed.
“This is a tough one,” Ryan Switzer, the sophomore receiver, said. “Because we all came down here feeling like we could compete and they just whipped us.”