North Carolina’s 34-17 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday left UNC coach Larry Fedora without many answers and left players quiet, somber and reiterating that unity will be more important than ever.
After this, the Tar Heels’ third consecutive loss – another defeat plagued by mental errors and penalties – staying together is all UNC can hope for. A game next weekend on the road against a top-10 Notre Dame team awaits.
“We can’t point any fingers at (anybody),” junior quarterback Marquise Williams said Saturday. “We’ve got to put the pieces together.”
There was blame to go around against Virginia Tech (4-2, 1-1 ACC). Williams was sacked and fumbled on the first offensive play of the game, and the Hokies recovered and scored a few moments later. That portended the Tar Heels’ offensive woes for much of the first three quarters.
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Special teams wasn’t immune, either. UNC (2-3, 0-2) was still clinging to a shred of hope when Ryan Switzer, the Tar Heels’ usually reliable punt returner who led the nation in punt returns a season ago, fumbled a punt in the fourth quarter. Virginia Tech scored a touchdown not long after to seal victory.
UNC committed three turnovers, all of which led to Virginia Tech touchdowns, and 10 penalties, some at the most inopportune times. UNC had 15 penalties last week at Clemson.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Fedora said of the penalties Saturday. “We have to go back and look at each and every one them and break them down and see what problem was.”
The failures on offense Saturday seemed to most bother Fedora, who rose through the coaching profession as an offensive assistant. The Tar Heels bumbled their way through the first half – especially after their second drive, which resulted in a field goal.
After that drive, UNC gained 15 yards on its next 15 plays, a total of four drives, two of which included Mitch Trubisky and Williams rotating at quarterback.
“I’d love to tell you that Virginia Tech is a great defense and did something spectacular,” Fedora said. “But it was whatever we could do wrong, whatever could go wrong for us offensively, went wrong the entire first half.”
By halftime, UNC had 138 yards and the Hokies had a 24-3 lead, seven of those points coming when Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller stepped in front of a Trubisky pass and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown. That interception happened late in the first half, after Trubisky had re-entered the game.
Fedora said he was searching for something then, and that’s why he put Trubisky back in.
“There was nothing that was going good in that first half,” Fedora said. “I mean nothing. So as a coach, you start searching for all kinds of spark – who’s going to give that spark to the team to maybe turn the tide and get something going.
“Who’s going to step up and be their leader? And we just never got that going in the first half.”
Defensively, the Tar Heels held the Hokies to an average of 4.2 yards per play, but Virginia Tech nonetheless controlled possession for more than two-thirds of the game. If guys were tired, worn out after spending so much time on the field, middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said, “I didn’t really notice it.”
The Tar Heels’ defense held the Hokies to 10 second-half points, seven coming with two minutes and 30 seconds to play, when Virginia Tech running back J.C. Coleman scored on a 1-yard run following Switzer’s fumble.
The losing streak is UNC’s longest since it lost four consecutive games a season ago when it started 1-5. The Tar Heels rallied then to finish with victories in six of their final games.
Now they search for something, anything, that can lead to a similar turnaround.