Three days before his team began the season on Saturday against Georgia, Larry Fedora described the fears that keep him up at night this time of year, the thoughts and worries that run through his mind.
“Man, I worry about everything there is,” Fedora had said then, on Wednesday. “What keeps me up at night is worrying, did we cover every situation that could possibly come up in this season? …
“My biggest nightmare is to think that there’s something that might happen that we haven’t prepared them for. That’s what scares me, as a coach.”
Fedora was talking about the small details that separate a team from victory and defeat – the kind of details that on Saturday doomed the Tar Heels to a 33-24 defeat against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. At times at the Georgia Dome, it was as if Fedora’s nightmare had come to life.
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UNC entered with grand aspirations of leaving Atlanta with a win that could have had ramifications well beyond the field, and the won-loss record. Instead, UNC left wondering what might have been if not for all of its mistakes – penalties and defensive breakdowns and questionable play-calls.
It was all so promising for a while. T.J. Logan’s 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at the start of the second half gave the Tar Heels a 17-14 lead, and when Logan scored again midway through the third quarter, on a 21-yard run, UNC led 24-14.
At the time the people who’d filled the Georgia Dome to root on the Bulldogs sat in silence. Meanwhile UNC fans, thoroughly outnumbered in a building only about an hour away from the Georgia campus in Athens, broke out in a spirited chant of “A-C-C! A-C-C!”
Indeed, a UNC victory on Saturday night would have helped its conference’s perception. More important for the Tar Heels, it would have bolstered their own, and perhaps served as the kind of catalyst that has long eluded them.
Fedora and his players, though, will never know what wonders a victory might have inspired. And they won’t know, in part, because of the 13 penalties they committed – one of them on Fedora himself – and because of the breakdowns, mental and physical, that plagued UNC in the game’s tensest moments.
“We had 13 penalties,” Fedora said on Saturday night, reciting the box score, “and we don’t need to go that way. We had penalties everywhere.”
He was afraid of this sort of thing. He was fearful of mistakes beyond his control, like the two pass-interference penalties that kept alive a Georgia drive after UNC had built that 24-14 lead. Twice the UNC defense had forced Georgia into unfavorable third-down circumstances.
The first time, the Bulldogs faced a third-and-8 from their own 39-yard-line. One more stop and the Bulldogs would have been forced to punt, and UNC’s offense, which to that point had built momentum, would have had a chance to extend the lead.
On that play Jacob Eason, the Georgia freshman quarterback, dropped back. He lobbed a high pass deep down the left sideline. It fell incomplete, about the same time that a penalty flag landed on the field: a pass-interference call on Patrice Rene, the Tar Heels’ freshman cornerback.
Moments later, the circumstances repeated themselves. Georgia faced a third-and-7 from the UNC 43. Eason dropped back. He passed deep down the left sideline, where Rene committed another pass-interference penalty.
“That just comes from a young guy who makes young guy mistakes,” Naz Jones, a junior defensive tackle who is one of UNC’s defensive leaders, said afterward. “But we’ve all been there.”
The Bulldogs capitalized on the pass-interference penalties and later scored a touchdown on that drive. Moments later came two more UNC penalties, now with the Tar Heels on offense.
First an ineligible-receiver-downfield penalty wiped away a 12-yard gain. Then Fedora, reacting in anger to that call, elicited an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that pushed the Tar Heels back to their own 4-yard-line, where they faced a second-and-15.
“The guy didn’t like what I said, so he threw a flag on me,” Fedora said. “It’s my fault. That’s the first time that’s ever happened in my life.”
Fedora’s unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty created one of those situations that inspires preseason nightmares, because it forced the Tar Heels into a position that isn’t easily replicated in practice. All of a sudden their momentum was gone, the crowd was deafening and the game turned chaotic.
Mitch Trubisky, the fourth-year junior quarterback who was making his first college start, received the snap and immediately moved backward in an attempt to elude defensive pressure. He threw a short and ill-fated pass to Elijah Hood, whom Georgia ran out of bounds for a safety.
“That was just a dumb play on my part,” Trubisky said. “I’ve got to burn the ball, and we’ve just got to eliminate the penalty so we don’t get backed up that far.”
During the final six minutes of the third quarter, UNC committed four penalties – two on pass interference, the illegal receiver downfield and the unsportsmanlike conduct – that changed the dynamic of the game and its outcome. Georgia used those miscues to build its own momentum that the Tar Heels never reclaimed.
Overall in the second half, UNC committed nine penalties for 75 yards. And yet they were only part of the reason for the defeat. The Tar Heels failed to stop the run, again, and allowed 289 yards rushing – 222 of them to Nick Chubb, whose 55-yard touchdown run with 3½ minutes to play sealed the Bulldogs’ victory.
“That guy don’t stop, man,” Jones said. “He just keeps his feet going, and he don’t care about contact.”
Fedora and his coaching staff had spent the entire offseason attempting to fix the run defense, which allowed 645 rushing yards in a bowl game loss against Baylor last December. One game into a new season, it appears that the Tar Heels still have much work to do there.
Then there was UNC’s own running game. The Tar Heels averaged 8.4 yards per carry, but running backs T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood combined for 16 rushing attempts. UNC passed twice as often as it ran, despite Trubisky’s inability to establish a downfield passing rhythm for much of the game.
“Below average,” Trubisky said of his performance after he completed 24 of his 40 attempts for 156 yards. “I didn’t play as I expected. I left some throws out there. A couple of them I want back.”
Fedora, meanwhile, said UNC “probably would have loved to have run it more.”
Asked why the Tar Heels didn’t, he cited inconsistency.
“We weren’t effective on first down enough,” he said. “And that caused us to get behind the chains, and then it makes it tough to run.”
The Tar Heels’ last best chance came with less than five minutes remaining, trailing 26-24 after the Bulldogs took the lead on a 29-yard field goal. On the kickoff return UNC committed a holding penalty.
Then, moments later, another penalty negated a third-down conversion. On the next play, a replay review overturned what had been first ruled as a first-down completion to Mack Hollins. UNC punted, which set up Chubb’s long touchdown run.
Afterward Hollins walked off the field wearing a smile, telling his teammates they’d win 14 consecutive games.
“Because I have confidence in what we’ve done,” he said later. “You lose one game, just like we did last year (against South Carolina), everybody counts you out. We won 11 straight.”
This one on Saturday night, though, offered UNC a rare chance to announce its arrival as a national contender. Instead it was the stuff of bad dreams – penalties and mistakes and, ultimately, a lost opportunity for a team that had been so looking forward to the chance.