After two dramatic victories earlier this season against Pittsburgh and Florida State, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora praised his team’s grit – perhaps the one characteristic that was missing most of all during the Tar Heels’ miserable loss last weekend against Virginia Tech.
It was wet that day at Kenan Stadium, where steady rain fell during UNC’s 34-3 defeat. It was windy, the far distant bands of Hurricane Matthew creating nasty conditions that contributed to the Tar Heels’ nasty performance. And now comes the challenge for UNC: how to respond.
The Tar Heels have had no time to mope, no time to pity themselves after one of the worst losses of Fedora’s five-year tenure. Not with a trip this weekend to Miami, where, in a sense, UNC is playing to keep alive its goal of winning the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Fedora earlier this week attempted to characterize his team’s character. The momentum from those two last-second victories against Pitt and Florida State was gone, and in its void arose some doubt – the kind that comes naturally after a 31-point defeat at home.
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“I’m not going to put everything on that performance the other night,” Fedora said. “And so this team has shown a lot of grit, they’ve shown that they care tremendously. They play for each other, they have each other’s back. …
“It just leaves a really bad taste in your mouth, the way we performed the other night.”
For the Tar Heels, there is but one way to cleanse the palette. That’s a victory on Saturday at No. 16 Miami, where UNC endured one of its lowest points of a long season in 2014. On that particular Saturday, the Tar Heels left with a 47-20 defeat.
On this one, though, they’ll be arriving with players who have grown accustomed to winning. UNC’s seniors, juniors and sophomores were part of an 11-win season last year. They helped lead the Tar Heels to the Coastal Division championship, and a 59-21 victory against Miami along the way.
Again, another ranked opponent, on the road in a hostile environment. Our guys have done that, so they know what to expect. And I expect our guys to bounce back.
UNC coach Larry Fedora
And those players helped lead UNC to improbable victories earlier this season. The triumphs against Pitt and Florida State provided the Tar Heels with two of their most memorable finishes in school history. Those wins provided proof, in Fedora’s estimation, of his team’s grit and character, which will be tested again at Miami.
“It’s going to be huge,” he said. “Again, another ranked opponent, on the road in a hostile environment. Our guys have done that, so they know what to expect. And I expect our guys to bounce back.”
If the Tar Heels win, they’ll extend Miami’s trend of post-Florida State misery. The Hurricanes lost their seventh consecutive game against the Seminoles last weekend, and losses against Florida State in recent seasons have represented an unofficial end to the season for Miami.
Under Al Golden, Miami went 11-11 in games after losing against the Seminoles, which is part of the reason why Golden is the former coach, and Mark Richt is in his first season as head coach. Richt earlier this week said he’s “not really worried” about a post-Florida State hangover.
He was more concerned with making sure his offense executed properly. He held the offense later after practice twice this week for more work. Offense, for a change, is a primary concern at UNC, too, given the Tar Heels problems in bad weather last weekend.
UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky, unable to effectively throw a wet, heavier ball, threw his first two interceptions of the season. He completed only 13 of his 33 attempts, and averaged a meager 1.8 yards per attempt.
If the Tar Heels respond the way Fedora envisions, it will likely mean that Trubisky is back to his old self – the player he was during UNC’s four consecutive victories that preceded the defeat against Virginia Tech. After the last win, national pundits began describing Trubisky as a possible Heisman Trophy contender.
Now he’s a player coming off of a poor game, on a team attempting to rebound from a miserable defeat. Trubisky earlier this week relied on the trusted old sporting cliché and said he approaches “every game thinking it’s a must-win.” And yet he understands the importance of this one is magnified.
“I hope I can put that message across to the team this week,” he said. “How important this game and how good this team is we’re about to play. We’re both going to come in there hungry.”
UNC at Miami
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
TV/Radio: WTVD, 106.1-WTKK