Larry Fedora might have said it three weeks into the season, or four, or five. He might have said it any time, really, and so he said it on Saturday after his team’s 35-14 victory at Virginia: “It’s coming at a great time now.”
He was talking about his team’s off week. Finally it’s here.
Finally, after playing for the first eight consecutive weeks of the season, the Tar Heels are off. If it seems like UNC’s off week comes late in the season, that’s because it does. No team in the ACC has a later off week than the Tar Heels. Only one other, Syracuse, shares the same off week.
Which means that 12 ACC teams have already had their off week. There’s some good and bad here, in having such a late off weekend. The bad: Eight consecutive weeks of games takes its toll. As Fedora put it after the victory at Virginia on Saturday: “We’re a beat-up football team right now.”
Which is why he likely would have said anytime that the bye week has arrived “at a great time.” Because when would a football coach ever oppose a chance for his team to become healthier? Still, some of the Tar Heels’ injury problems won’t be solved by a week off.
Mack Hollins, the senior receiver, is out for the season. Same with Caleb Peterson, the offensive guard.
For players dealing with more minor injuries, though, this week could be valuable. Jon Heck, the senior right tackle, didn’t play last week after suffering a head injury earlier this month at Miami. The off week could do him some good. Elijah Hood said on Saturday that he’s still becoming healthier.
And so the bad part about playing for eight consecutive weeks is that it wears a team down. The good, though? The good is that a late off week allows UNC to refresh itself for the final month.
The degree of difficulty during this final month isn’t especially high. Which isn’t to say that UNC has an easy road during the next five weeks. But the most difficult portion of the schedule is in the past, and the Tar Heels are likely to be favored in all of their remaining games.
The next two, against Georgia Tech on Nov. 5 and at Duke on Nov. 10, come just five days apart. The Tar Heels have some extra time here this week to prepare for their game against Georgia Tech and its option offense – though the benefits of the extra prep time are more likely based in mythology than reality. A quick turnaround on the road for a Thursday night game at Duke will be a challenge.
Beyond the rest, the off week offers the Tar Heels a chance to reset themselves in some ways. The offense in recent weeks – starting with the debacle against Virginia Tech in less-than-ideal conditions – has labored for long stretches. UNC played well offensively throughout the third quarter at Virginia on Saturday, but quarterback Mitch Trubisky said it took too long for UNC to get going.
Defensively, the bye week focus will be to build on recent success. During the first month of the season, the Tar Heels were a bad defensive team. Gene Chizik, the defensive coordinator, sounded exasperated in those days, and he warned that without improvement it’d be a long, long season for this defense.
Well, the defense has improved. It has allowed season lows in rushing in each of the past two weeks. Overall, the Tar Heels are now 35th nationally in yards per play allowed (5.19). It wasn’t too long ago when UNC ranked in the 100s nationally in that category. The game against Virginia Tech, in tropical storm-like conditions, skews the numbers a little bit.
But the defense played well again against Miami. And against Virginia on Saturday, the UNC defense did what any defense should against a bad offensive team: It essentially shut the Cavaliers down. Now if only the Tar Heels could intercept a pass. In one of the strangest statistical anomalies of the season, UNC remains the only team in the country without an interception.
That’s one thing that won’t change during UNC’s bye. Fedora is hoping his team’s health might, at least.