People sitting in the top level inside Ford Field, seven stories high, could hear North Carolina’s alleged enthusiasm while the Tar Heels warmed up for the Quick Lane Bowl on Friday afternoon. Inside a cavernous dome that was largely empty, the pregame noises were amplified.
They were misleading, too. UNC for weeks insisted it was ready and it sounded ready for its season finale against Rutgers, but then the Tar Heels did what they’ve been known to do at times this season: They provided a confounding, no-show performance in a 40-21 defeat.
The final score was only that close after the Tar Heels scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns – one after one of the two onside kicks that the Tar Heels recovered in the final six minutes. Outside of that flurry, which was ignited by a sense of desperation and by younger players hungry to make a mark with their chance, there were few highlights.
This was supposed to be an opportunity for the Tar Heels (6-7) to atone for another of those kinds of losses – the 35-7 defeat they endured against N.C. State. In the weeks since, coach Larry Fedora and his players spoke of their thankfulness for this chance – to end the season on a positive.
So much for that.
UNC played poorly defensively throughout the season, and that was the case again Friday. It mixed in moments of brilliance on offense with other stretches that had to make Fedora wonder if he was watching the same team.
After some of UNC’s more disappointing losses – against East Carolina, Miami and N.C. State, for instance – Fedora had difficulty identifying the most disappointing aspect of those defeats. So it was again Friday, when it was difficult to attribute the meltdown to any one factor.
Was it the defense, which allowed touchdowns of 34, 21 and 34 yards and more than 500 yards overall for the seventh time this season? Was it the offense, which failed to score in the first half, and had just 275 yards through the first three quarters before the Tar Heels had some late success with the game out of reach?
The Scarlet Knights (8-5), who had defeated few teams of consequence this season, arrived in Detroit allowing an average of 439.5 yards per game, which ranked 96th nationally. Somehow, though, Rutgers managed to keep UNC out of the end zone during the first half.
The Tar Heels helped. Two early drives ended in lost fumbles. On another drive, the Tar Heels strangely decided to punt on a 4th-and-2 from the Rutgers 40-yard line. On another drive, UNC moved inside the Rutgers’ 10-yard line only to come away with no points after a bizarre fake field goal attempt went awry.
The misguided fake field goal provided one of the more comedic moments of the game, given how easily the Scarlet Knights stopped it. It was like that for the Tar Heels – plenty of moments worthy of the blooper reel, though Fedora, as he has said at times this season, likely found little of it funny.
While UNC mimicked its performance in that confounding loss against N.C. State, Rutgers slowly built a commanding lead. It was 7-0 after the first quarter, 14-0 early in the second and then 20-0 with about nine minutes remaining before halftime, after an 8-yard touchdown run from Robert Martin.
By halftime, Rutgers – which ranked 81st nationally in total offense – led 23-0 after gaining 281 yards. The Scarlet Knights finished with a season-high 524 yards – more than 100 yards more than its average. Two Rutgers running backs – Josh Hicks and Robert Martin – ran for more than 100 yards. They combined for all three of the Scarlet Knights’ rushing touchdowns.
The Tar Heels’ defense, which ranked among the worst in school history in every statistical measure, was so bad that Fedora parted ways with Vic Koenning, the assistant coach who was most responsible for the defense. Dan Disch, another defensive assistant coach, called plays on Friday.
It didn’t make a difference. UNC allowed at least least 40 points for the sixth time this season.
UNC entered the season with the aspiration of competing for the Coastal Division championship, but those hopes faded amid a four-game losing streak. Then there was the hope, at least, of finishing the season with a victory – with something to build on.
Instead, the Tar Heels left Detroit with a loss that was as disappointing as any they endured this season, and they left with their first losing season since 2007.