For the second consecutive game this season, North Carolina was embarrassed.
In Week One, its offense, or lack thereof, cost UNC the game. In Week Two, it was the defense, and UNC lost to East Carolina 41-19. The Tar Heels entered the game 16.5 point favorites. ECU was coming off a loss to N.C. A&T, an FCS program.
But after going up 21-16, with 1:44 left in the first half, the Pirates dominated the Tar Heels the rest of the game.
The Tar Heels start the season 0-2 for the second consecutive season, before playing what might possibly be its toughest opponent of the season:
Central Florida (2-0), last year’s unofficial national champions.
UNC was without a number of players on Saturday. Nine players missed the game because they were suspended for selling team-issued sneakers, and a few others were out with injuries.
The defense took the biggest hit. Starting senior defensive end Malik Carney served the first game of his four-game suspension. The Tar Heels were also missing starting safety junior Myles Dorn, who suffered a leg injury against California last week, and starting junior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford, who missed his second consecutive game with a knee injury.
Here are five observations from UNC’s loss to East Carolina:
1. UNC made silly mistakes
Apparently, UNC didn’t learn from its mistakes last week. The Tar Heels had 13 penalties for 124 yards against Cal. Those penalties were crucial in their defeat. Yet, in the first half of their game against the Pirates, they had seven penalties for 65 yards.
It was one of the things UNC’s coaching staff had said they would address that week. But it seemed the players didn’t get the message.
One penalty late in the first half extended a drive that would have otherwise led to, at most a field goal.
UNC senior defensive lineman Tyler Powell hit ECU quarterback Reid Herring out of bounds after he had thrown the ball away. It was third down and 22.
But the personal foul penalty called against Powell made the play an automatic first down. Four plays later, ECU scored on a touchdown run to go up by one point.
“We kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “We kept getting penalties, didn’t finish any drives off. Give Freeman (Jones) credit. He did a really nice job for us. And then in the second half, we didn’t get anything going.”
2. Offense became stagnant in the second half
The Tar Heels played much better offensively in the first half of this game than they did against Cal. For a while, UNC’s offense looked superior to ECU’s defense. After one half of play, UNC had 170 passing yards and 147 rushing yards. Its running backs were averaging 10.5 yards per carry.
But the momentum changed drastically after running back Antonio Williams was ejected from the game for leading with the crown of his helmet on a block. Before being ejected, Williams had 96 yards on six rushes. He was averaging 16 yards per rush.
In the second half, the Tar Heels had five consecutive possessions in which they either punted the ball, or turned the ball over on downs. ECU scored 20 unanswered points.
“We didn’t get the job done, and again that’s on me,” Fedora said.
3. Maybe UNC’s defense isn’t that good after all.
UNC’s defense looked good even after a loss to Cal. Cal only had 279 yards of offense in that game. UNC’s linebackers, secondary and defensive line played well.
But this didn’t look like the same defense. It also came against a lesser opponent. UNC definitely missed having Carney, who was all over the field in the first game.
The Tar Heels failed to get pressure on the quarterback on Saturday, and as a result Herring carved them up. Herring was 19-of-32 for 291 yards and one touchdown.
“(The Pirates) played their butts off and they played hard,” senior linebacker Cole Holcomb said. “We thought we were just going to roll it out there and play a football game, and we didn’t execute what we needed to execute.”
Earlier this week, UNC defensive coordinator John Papuchis said he was not ready to crown his defense. He was right to not do so.
4. UNC ought to give Cade Fortin a chance
UNC junior quarterback Nathan Elliott struggled for the second consecutive game. He did not throw an interception, but was inaccurate on many of his throws. He finished 22-of-38 for 219 yards and zero touchdowns against a struggling ECU team.
Through the first two games, Elliott is now 37-of-73, for 356 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions.
Fedora ought to give thought to starting or giving more snaps to true freshman Cade Fortin.
Fortin did play some at the end of the game. He was 3-of-6 for 15 yards.
5. Fedora’s seat just got hotter
If Fedora’s seat was hot already, it just got hotter. UNC’s fan base was not pleased with its 3-9 finish last year. Then UNC’s players were caught selling shoes in February. Its players were suspended, and UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said the coaches were disciplined too.
This was a game that UNC needed to win. But instead, it was embarrassed, yet again
Fedora said he understands that there will be criticism headed his way. He said he’ll handle it the same way he does anything else.
“If you’ve got a sound philosophy and you’re working hard and your guys are working hard, good things will happen,” he said. “That’s the way you’ve got to look at it.”