North Carolina entered halftime against Delaware on Saturday with a six-point lead and with a fuming head coach, although Larry Fedora tried not to show his frustration. During his talk with his players, he said, “there wasn’t a lot of yelling and screaming.”
There was a direct message, though, a challenge and at least one question.
“Are we going to continue to slop around out here,” Fedora said he asked his team, “or are we going to get after it and play the kind of football we can play?”
The Tar Heels eventually turned a close game into a 41-14 victory, although the rout came later than expected, and it came amid some unexpected circumstances: with reserve quarterback Mitch Trubisky playing nearly the entire second half and with the defense, at times, helpless against the run.
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Delaware, a lower-division Football Championship Subdivision opponent, scored on its second offensive play on a 72-yard run from Thomas Jefferson, its freshman running back. The Blue Hens ran, overall, for 272 yards.
Jefferson’s early touchdown was “a wake-up call,” UNC defensive end Dajaun Drennon said, although the Tar Heels still labored to stop Delaware, which had two running backs gain at least 95 yards.
The Tar Heels’ deficiencies in run defense could be a bad omen given the triple-option offense they’ll face next week at Georgia Tech. But UNC’s offense had its breakdowns, too, and those prompted Fedora to put Trubisky into the game.
He entered it on the Tar Heels’ fourth offensive series, after Marquise Williams, the senior quarterback, had led UNC to 10 points on its first three drives. During those drives, Williams’ decision-making flustered Fedora.
“I didn’t like some of the decisions that were made,” Fedora said when asked what bothered him most about the offense early on. “And that was probably the majority of it. It was more decision-making in what we were doing. And then we’ve got to finish things off. …
“There were a lot of things that kept us from clicking. But I would say most of all that it was just decisions.”
The game Saturday, for UNC (3-1), was supposed to be nothing more than a tuneup – a prelude to the start of conference play. Yet late in the third quarter the Blue Hens (2-2) trailed 20-14 after their 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive ended with Jefferson’s 1-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-goal.
Some of UNC’s players looked at the scoreboard and were surprised to see it reflect a one-possession game. Among a sparse announced crowd of 39,000 – thinned by a steady rain – there was quiet and, undoubtedly, some apprehension.
“I was looking at (receiver) Bug (Howard) when they scored and made it 20-14: I was like – man, like, it’s 20-14,” Ryan Switzer, the junior receiver, said. “But we weren’t threatened or anything like that. It was just a matter of us getting into our groove.”
The Tar Heels finally did. After Delaware’s long touchdown drive, UNC responded quickly and scored on Trubisky’s 64-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Mack Hollins.
That was the first of three UNC touchdowns – all on Trubisky passes – in a span of about 11 minutes. By the time Switzer turned a medium gain into a 63-yard touchdown – he broke a couple of tackles, dodged some others and cut his way across the field – UNC led 41-14 with 6 1/2 minutes to play.
Trubisky played in UNC’s victories the past two weeks against N.C. A&T and Illinois. His appearance Saturday, though, had a different feel to it. Unlike in the others, he was called upon to ignite the offense and to be a catalyst.
“I know when there’s an opportunity in front of me, I’m going to take full advantage of it,” said Trubisky, who completed 17 of his 20 attempts for 312 yards and four touchdowns – all career highs. “I might not have taken advantage of opportunities in the past, but I felt like today I did what I needed to do for my team. And I’m pretty happy about that.”
Williams, who completed 6 of 12 attempts for 65 yards, left the game after UNC’s third series. On his final play he was sacked for an 11-yard loss. He watched most of the second half while standing on the sideline. At times he appeared to walk with a slight limp.
Asked afterward if Williams had been injured, Fedora said, “I have no idea.”
“And plus I don’t talk about (injuries), anyway,” Fedora said.
Williams didn’t make himself available for interviews afterward, and he told a team spokesman that he was receiving treatment on his hip. He had hip surgery after last season that caused him to miss spring practice.
Some UNC players downplayed the notion of a quarterback competition, and Fedora said that “as of right now” Williams would remain the starter. Even so, the question is likely to linger next week before UNC begins ACC play at Georgia Tech.
After the victory against Delaware, Fedora reiterated, as he often has, that he’s “never comfortable,” and that he wouldn’t have been even if the win came amid less sloppiness and with more ease. The first half frustrated him especially, and he questioned whether he had properly prepared his team.
Eventually, though, the Tar Heels pulled away, and the final score looked something like what had been expected. It was the rest of it – Trubisky coming in and passing for more than 300 yards, the defense’s inability to stop Delaware’s rushing offense, that no one saw coming.