In the weeks before his team began the season with a 33-24 defeat against Georgia, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said more than once that he was preparing the Tar Heels to play 15 games. The implication was clear enough.
Counting 12 regular season games, one ACC championship game and two College Football Playoff games, Fedora offered an optimistic, if not unrealistic, goal for the Tar Heels. After that loss against Georgia, though, he backtracked.
“I wouldn’t sit here and say that 15 is a goal of this football team,” he said then, referring to the number of games. “That’s not ever been a stated goal of ours for this team. Yeah, we’d love to play 15. That would be great. But we didn’t walk into this season saying our goal is to play 15 games.”
UNC’s stated goals, Fedora later clarified, are to win the state championship – an unofficial title that would require victories against Duke and N.C. State – win the ACC’s Coastal Division, win the ACC championship and win its final game, regardless of where it comes.
“That’s it,” Fedora said.
In the context of those goals, the significance of the Tar Heels’ game against Pittsburgh on Saturday at Kenan Stadium can’t be overstated. For one, it’s UNC’s first ACC game – the first opportunity for the Tar Heels to defend their Coastal Division championship.
Beyond that, Saturday is the beginning of a critical four-week stretch that will determine the course of UNC’s season. After it plays Pitt on Saturday, UNC travels to Florida State, returns home for a game against Virginia Tech and then plays at Miami.
By the end of that run, Fedora and his players will know a lot, to borrow one of Fedora’s favorite expressions, about the 2016 Tar Heels. For now they’re simply hoping they’re better than what they’ve shown – especially defensively.
Reminded earlier this week of the four-game stretch that faces his team, Fedora relied on a tried and true coaching cliché. Like referencing the 15 games he’d been preparing his team to play, he’d used this expression a time or two, too.
We need to show up and play with a defense that looks like it can compete in this league.
“You know I haven’t thought about a four-game stretch,” he said. “I’m hoping we’ve got enough to come together for this game against Pitt. It’s the only game that really matters to us.”
There was a sense of urgency behind the words, and then more urgency one day later from Gene Chizik, the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator. After allowing nearly 500 yards against James Madison last weekend, UNC ranks in the 100s nationally in total defense and yards allowed per play.
Neither Chizik nor anyone else associated with the team envisioned this kind of defensive start – though it was impossible, too, to envision the rash of injuries that have afflicted UNC’s defensive front. Two regular starters are expected to be back on Saturday.
Naz Jones, the junior defensive tackle, missed the James Madison game while recovering from a concussion. Meanwhile, Dajaun Drennon, the junior defensive end, is expected to make his season debut on Saturday after missing the first three games because of an undisclosed injury.
Their return should benefit a defense that Chizik described earlier this week with an array of invectives. In various moments he called his defense “soft,” “disappointing,” “bad” and “subpar.”
“And, again, that’s probably a kind statement,” he said.
“Preseason is over”
Chizik’s defense entered the season surrounded by the question of whether it would be more effective against the run. The answer, three games into the season: No, it can’t.
By any statistical measure, the Tar Heels were among the worst teams against the run last season, and they’ve been among the worst teams against the run this season. That’s especially concerning because Pitt’s strength is rushing offense. The Panthers have averaged 239 rushing yards per game.
UNC’s poor rushing defense can improve. That’s Chizik’s hope. Yet in evaluating his defense, he said earlier this week that “a lot of guys haven’t” produced.
“And that’s been disappointing,” he said. “But again, it’s the start of conference play. And the preseason is over. And we need to show up and play with a defense that looks like it can compete in this league.”
That has been among UNC’s mantras this week: The preseason is over.
The Tar Heels began the season with a loss against Georgia, went on the road and defeated Illinois with relative ease and pulled away last weekend from James Madison, which nonetheless embarrassed the UNC defense early on. And now comes the start of ACC play, and the beginning of a title defense.
The Tar Heels won all eight of their regular season conference games last season. The streak began with a dramatic rally at Georgia Tech, where UNC overcame a 21-0 deficit in a victory that continued to pay dividends in the weeks that followed. Time proved that victory was a turning point.
That was then, though. Fedora and his players haven’t often discussed what happened last year.
“We know what we did last year,” junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky said, “but we’ve realized this 2016 team isn’t the 2015 team. We want it to go the same way as last year but it’s up to us to make it happen.”
By the end of their first conference game a season ago, the Tar Heels had forged an important part of their identity. They became, in that improbable victory at Georgia Tech, a team that wouldn’t quit, one that believed no deficit was too large.
The victory in Atlanta helped lead to the next win, and the next. All of a sudden, the Tar Heels were “rolling,” junior safety Donnie Miles said earlier this week, and “a lot of people started to believe like, hey, we can actually do this.”
UNC hoped for a similar moment in Atlanta earlier this season. Instead it left with that season-opening defeat against Georgia at the Georgia Dome, a loss that Fedora minimized later because of its irrelevance to his team’s official goals.
Now the quest to achieve the most important of those goals begins on Saturday. The Tar Heels are “still figuring out who we are,” Miles said, and they’re seeking an important victory as much as they are an identity.
Pitt at UNC
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill