More than an hour before his team’s game against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Mitch Trubisky stepped onto the field at Kenan Stadium and began warming up amid hard, steady rain and gusty wind on the far outskirts of Hurricane Matthew. Trubisky said he felt good, confident.
“And then the first series it was totally different than pregame,” said Trubisky, the North Carolina junior quarterback. He’d been so accurate, so good, during the past month – and especially during the past two weeks amid dramatic, memorable last-second victories against Pittsburgh and Florida State.
And then came Saturday, with a downpour and a wind that wreaked as much havoc on the Tar Heels, if not more, as a relentless Virginia Tech defense. For Trubisky and his UNC teammates, it was difficult afterward to separate the carnage, to compartmentalize it in tidy packages.
How much of the Tar Heels’ 34-3 defeat here at Kenan Stadium could be blamed on the nasty conditions, which undoubtedly contributed to UNC’s four turnovers and inept performance on offense? How much of the Tar Heels’ woes could be blamed, simply, on resurgent Virginia Tech?
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Nobody could answer those questions, exactly, in the aftermath on Saturday. All UNC coach Larry Fedora and his players knew is that they lost, and lost in debilitating, embarrassing fashion unbecoming of the team they believe they are.
“We didn’t play up to our capabilities,” Fedora said, “or anywhere close to it.”
It was a defeat that had UNC officials thumbing through the record books, trying to provide perspective to the damage. The Tar Heels’ three points were their fewest in Fedora’s 58 games at UNC. It was the first time since he became head coach that the Tar Heels had failed to score a touchdown.
Their 131 yards of offense – the culmination of a day’s work that included 2.1 yards per play, on average – were their fewest since 1999. And the 31-point margin of defeat was UNC’s widest since November 2008.
Before Saturday it had been that long, since the 2008 season, that two ranked teams played at Kenan Stadium. And here it happened again, No. 17 UNC against No. 25 Virginia Tech – an opportunity for the Tar Heels to build on two of their most memorable victories in recent memory.
Except there was no way to prepare for what the Tar Heels encountered. The Hokies’ defense, which “did some complicated things,” Trubisky said, was one thing. The weather, which Fedora and his players went out of their way not to blame for their shortcomings, was something else.
The majority of those who showed up to watch – the official attendance was 33,000 – hung around for a while. The crowd became thinner as the game wore on, though, the outcome less in doubt.
“We just didn't play well enough for our fans,” Trubisky said.
During the first five weeks of the season, the UNC offense had usually thrived thanks to a passing game built on Trubisky's accuracy. His first pass attempt on Saturday seemed to spurt out of his hand sideways, and fluttered high. His second attempt was tipped at the line. His third was intercepted,which snapped his streak of 243 pass attempts without an interception.
UNC believed it had adequately prepared for the Virginia Tech defense. But the weather?
“It was a struggle to throw and catch, basically,” Fedora said. “It was a struggle to throw and catch just basic routes. … You’re not going to simulate that, unless you get a fire hose out there and just keep it coming.”
The Tar Heels didn’t use a fire hose in practice last week. They did practice with a wet ball, both Trubisky and T.J. Logan said on Saturday. Logan, the senior running back, finished with 67 yards rushing – more than half of UNC’s entire offensive output.
The Hokies didn’t exactly thrive offensively. They finished with 237 yards and averaged 3.2 yards per play. Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans, who completed 7 of his 17 attempts for 75 yards, didn’t pass all that much more effectively than Trubisky, who was 13-for-33 for 58 yards.
The difference, though, was turnovers. Evans threw no interceptions. Trubisky threw two and also lost a fumble. The Hokies scored 20 points off of UNC’s four turnovers.
Seven of those points came after a fumble on UNC’s first drive of the second half. Moments later, the Hokies scored again after Tom Sheldon, the UNC punter, fell on his own fumble, giving Virginia Tech a first-and-goal from the Tar Heels’ 4-yard line.
Virginia Tech’s final three touchdown drives all began inside the UNC 30-yard line. Two of those drives began after a UNC turnover, the other after Sheldon dropped the snap on a punt attempt.
“We can’t make the mistakes we made and win a football like that,” Fedora said.
That, he said, is what he told his players. The past two weeks, they’d experienced the highest of emotional highs, two moments of ecstasy and jubilation after the Tar Heels won, twice, after scoring on their final offensive play.
Now they found themselves on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. The immediate postgame autopsy was simple enough – turnovers, offensive ineptitude – though no one seemed able to explain how exactly it had all gone awry.
It had simply happened, an avalanche of poor execution on a nasty day that ended, for UNC, with a nasty defeat, one of the worst of Fedora’s tenure. Afterward he said it was his responsibility and his fault. His players, meanwhile, attempted to move on.
“We’re just keeping all the younger guys up,” Naz Jones, the senior defensive tackle said, “because these guys, they’re not used to losing. I mean, I’ve been through the 6-6 season, so I know what it’s like to try to bounce back.”
After a long, miserable day, that quickly became the Tar Heels’ priority.