Sports

For beleaguered Tar Heels, a reset and then relief

UNC running back Michael Carter (8) is held aloft by teammate offensive tackle Charlie Heck (67) after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter. UNC played Pittsburgh in Chapel Hill, N.C. Saturday, Sept.22, 2018.
UNC running back Michael Carter (8) is held aloft by teammate offensive tackle Charlie Heck (67) after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter. UNC played Pittsburgh in Chapel Hill, N.C. Saturday, Sept.22, 2018.

Two weeks ago, in the wake of an embarrassing drubbing at East Carolina, there was nothing 0-2 North Carolina would have liked more for its football season than a reset button. Player UNC has disconnected from the game.

When the arrival of Hurricane Florence forced the cancellation of last Saturday’s game against Central Florida, leaving a 13-day gap in the schedule, the Tar Heels actually got one.

“We were kind of trapped in the house, playing video games and watching games on TV, but not really thinking about what was going on,” quarterback Nathan Elliott said. “We kind of reset a little bit. The one or two days we stayed away was really good for us.”

Given a reboot, and a game against peculiar punching bag Pittsburgh, the Tar Heels made the most of it. It sounds like a stretch to say Saturday’s 38-35 win over the Panthers – North Carolina’s sixth straight against Pitt – saved the Tar Heels’ season, but a loss would almost certainly have sunk it, dropping North Carolina to 0-3 and bereft of belief heading into the meat of the ACC schedule.

While things could still turn sour over the next month, for the first time in a while – perhaps since the Tar Heels beat Pittsburgh last season for their only ACC win – the pressure on this program abated, even if only a little bit.

“It’s a big relief,” receiver Dazz Newsome said. “We knew we could do it. We were putting it together. And everything clicked.”

How much it relaxed remains an open question, given the 22-point loss in Greenville and the lack of proof, yet, that North Carolina can beat a team that isn’t Pitt. Nevertheless, it was a welcome bit of positive momentum after what was turning into two seasons of disarray – last season’s struggles blurring into Larry Fedora’s bizarre rant about FOOTBALL!!! and then into the shoe-selling suspensions and then into the 0-2 start to this season.

This, combined with the PR disaster of an offseason, generated understandable pressure on Fedora. The reality, though, is the combination of his contract and his track record – this team is less than three years removed from being a play away from an ACC championship, and his stewardship of the program through the NCAA sanctions has not been forgotten – means this season will have more to say about how much pressure Fedora will be under next season than it will his immediate future.

There are some Fedora-related questions that need answers, mainly whether his recruiting has stockpiled enough ACC-caliber talent, especially at quarterback. (Mitch Trubisky’s early departure may have been an excuse last year, but it has expired.) But those answers won’t come for a while, and certainly not in the first month of this season. Even the half-empty expanse of new blue seats in Kenan Stadium wasn’t a referendum on the program as much as it was standard for a noon start in September; the crowd for the Virginia Tech game in three weeks will be a better barometer.

With all of that hanging overhead, this was a program that desperately needed something, anything to go right. For the first time in what felt like forever, it finally did.

“Relief, happiness – all of it comes together,” Fedora said.

The time off came at a price: North Carolina now only has 11 games on the schedule. Athletic director Bubba Cunningham said getting through the storm was the first priority and he would start looking into options Monday, but there isn’t a lot of wiggle room.

The Tar Heels’ open date of Oct. 6 may be too soon to schedule a 12th opponent – and was placed in that spot to give the Tar Heels time to recover from the impending short turnaround to the Miami game Thursday. The Saturday of the ACC title game, Dec. 1, is a possibility, but only if and when the Tar Heels are eliminated from Coastal contention, which means any tentative contract would have a lot of moving parts.

Going into Saturday, an abridged 11-game schedule felt merciful; coming out of it, there’s a new font of optimism in Chapel Hill, at least for the moment.

Elliott was a big part of that, bouncing back from his four interceptions in the first two games to throw for 313 yards, two touchdowns – and no picks. But UNC’s equally beleaguered defense, while still hemorrhaging yards, was near-flawless in the second half, keeping the Panthers off the board until their final possession.

It was far from perfect, but it was a win, and like the time off, it couldn’t have come at a better time for North Carolina.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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