The day after it happened Larry Fedora told his players to embrace their anguish. He saw it in their expressions and body language and so he told them to feel the pain.
“I told them, ‘Wallow in your misery. Go ahead. Wallow in it today, wallow in it on Saturday, and then when you come back here on (Sunday), come in with a purpose to be the best that we can possibly be,’ ” Fedora, the North Carolina coach, said on Monday.
Four days have passed since the Tar Heels’ 28-27 defeat at Duke. It was, perhaps, UNC’s most shocking defeat of the season – more so than its ugly 34-3 loss against Virginia Tech. That one, at least, came amid miserable conditions on the outskirts of Hurricane Matthew.
This one, last Thursday, came with no ready-made excuse.
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“We got out-played, we got out-coached,” UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky said on Monday. “And we have no one to blame but ourselves.”
UNC started well enough, and led 14-0 in the first quarter. Then, slowly, the Tar Heels unraveled. Their defense failed to stop Daniel Jones, the Duke quarterback. UNC’s offense sputtered like it rarely has.
“It was on both sides of the ball, just little things, just basic fundamental mistakes on base things,” Fedora said. “Base calls, base things, that we’ve run thousands of times since spring ball of last year, or fall camp, that should not happen. Should not happen.”
But it did happen. UNC lost against Duke for the third time in five years.
At the time, the defeat appeared to knock the Tar Heels out of the race for the Coastal Division championship. They received a gift over the weekend in the form of Georgia Tech’s surprising victory at Virginia Tech, which failed to capitalize on a chance to clinch the division.
The Hokies still can clinch with a victory against Virginia on the final weekend of the regular season. If UNC beats N.C. State on Nov. 25, though, and if the Cavaliers upset he Hokies the next day in Blacksburg, Va., then the Tar Heels would represent the Coastal in the ACC championship game.
Fedora and his players have taken little solace in the possibility of a division championship. Had Georgia Tech’s victory at Virginia Tech made easier UNC’s recovery from its own defeat? Trubisky didn’t seem to think so.
“Easier?” he asked on Monday with a sense of skepticism.
Not exactly. He acknowledged the Tar Heels still have a chance to accomplish one of their preseason goals. It’s a relatively slim chance, given that Virginia Tech will be a decisive favorite to defeat Virginia.
And yet, Trubisky said, “There’s still a chance. There’s still hope.”
“A couple of more things have to fall in place, but we’ve got to take care of business,” he said. “I think the most important thing is we didn’t take care of business when we had the chance.”
Trubisky said he and his teammates “missed a big opportunity” on Thursday at Duke. A victory there, and UNC would be in control of the division right now, needing only that victory against N.C. State to win the Coastal for the second consecutive year.
Instead the Tar Heels have spent the past several days wondering how it went so wrong against the Blue Devils. Players have tried “to go back and reflect and look at (ourselves) in the mirror,” senior safety Donnie Miles said on Monday, and examine their role in defeat.
First, UNC’s recovery began with acceptance. It began with Fedora encouraging his team to wallow in its misery for a day or two. By Monday, he was hopeful it was in the past, that the Tar Heels were ready to move on to preparations for their non-conference game on Saturday against The Citadel.