There was a moment during Larry Fedora's postgame press conference on Saturday when the room fell silent – when reporters were out of questions and when Fedora, the North Carolina coach, was out of answers following his team's 35-7 defeat against N.C. State.
What could he say, after this? How to explain the most puzzling defeat of a puzzling season – how to put into words all that went wrong in a demoralizing loss to an inspired rival? And how to explain it given that it came just nine days after UNC's best performance of the season?
After all the expected questions, Fedora broke the silence.
“Yeah, I wish I had more answers for you, actually,” he said. “I would probably feel better about myself if I did. But I don't have a whole lot to say.”
His team's performance spoke loudly enough. The Tar Heels, just nine days after an impressive victory at Duke, were listless from the start. It was late in the first quarter, Fedora said, when he began to sense something was off – that maybe his team just didn't have it.
Some of his players might have felt that even earlier.
“I mean, I've seen it from the opening kickoff,” said Dajuan Drennon, UNC's redshirt freshman defensive end. “Their whole sideline was jumping up and down and it just seemed like we were dead on our side. And we tried to get the boys going, but it just felt like it wasn't happening – wasn't clicking.”
No, it didn't click anywhere for the Tar Heels on Saturday. Not on defense, where rarely anything has clicked this season. The Tar Heels were even worse than usual, though, at least against the run, and surrendered a season-high 388 yards rushing.
Not on offense, which usually has provided UNC with its salvation. The Tar Heels finished with a meager 207 total yards, averaged 3.3 yards per play and lost quarterback Marquise Williams to a right leg injury in the third quarter.
“Offensively that was as probably as bad I've ever been around, actually,” Fedora said.
The numbers suggest it’s true. UNC had never generated fewer yards under Fedora than it did on Saturday, and in his seven seasons as a head coach – the first four at Southern Miss – he'd never witnessed a more anemic offensive performance.
The only thing that kept the Tar Heels from making history and enduring its first shutout in this rivalry at Kenan Stadium since 1960 was a touchdown with one minute, 48 seconds to play – a 13-yard pass from Mitch Trubisky to Quinshad Davis that maybe a few thousand UNC fans were still around to see.
Before that, this is how UNC's drives ended: punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, interception, punt, punt, interception and punt. No one could explain it. Not Fedora. Not players. No one could answer why UNC struggled so mightily against an N.C. State defense that ranked 59th nationally in yards allowed.
“They came out ready to go and hit us in the mouth,” Davis said. “And we didn't react too well.”
That might have been the most troubling aspect of a troubling performance for the Tar Heels: that not only they failed to match N.C. State's level of execution, but also the Wolfpack's intensity and energy.
From the start, the Wolfpack was the aggressor. And from the start, the Tar Heels seemed to search for a spark they never found. By halftime, N.C. State quarterback Jacoby Brissett had run for 115 yards - four fewer than UNC had gained for the game at that point.
Brissett finished with 167 yards rushing and Shadrach Thornton with 161. UNC’s leading rusher? That was Romar Morris, who gained 20 yards on five carries.
“It's definitely one of our worst games as an offensive line,” Landon Turner, UNC’s junior guard, said. “It wasn't a lack of ability. I guess it was more of a mental gap. We got in our heads today.”
In a lot of measurable ways – offensive inefficiency, the defense's inability to defend the run – this was UNC's worst loss of the season. It was a defeat that conjured memories of the 70-41 loss at East Carolina in September.
That was, perhaps, a more spectacular flame out, with UNC succumbing to a barrage of big plays. This one, though, was no less disappointing – and perhaps more so because the Tar Heels were supposed to have learned from what happened in Greenville against ECU.
“I really can't tell you how that can happen again,” Drennon said.
Nobody could. The highlight of the afternoon for the Tar Heels might have come after time mercifully expired.
Norkeithus Otis, the senior bandit, sprinted onto the field, toward the midfield logo, and stood there like a sentry, guarding it, making sure no N.C. State player stomped it. Some of his teammates joined him, on patrol.
They stood their ground until it became clear the logo was safe. It was the best defense the Tar Heels played all day, and perhaps their most aggressive display.
Then Fedora called his players off and directed them toward the locker room. It was over, and had been much earlier than the Tar Heels ever anticipated.