North Carolina didn't lack for mistakes on Saturday during its 50-35 loss at Clemson. Blown coverage in the secondary. Penalties. The Tigers presented a daunting enough challenge on their own. UNC, though, made things far more difficult on itself than it had to be.
And so as you'd expect, coach Larry Fedora spent a lot of time on Monday during his weekly press conference answering questions about what went wrong. I asked him, specifically, about the breakdowns in the secondary on Saturday night.
“Those are just mental mistakes,” he said. “Because they're base things. They weren't something that was exotic, that we put in for that game. I mean, they were just basic mental mistakes.”
That has to be discouraging. The Tar Heels are in their third year running Vic Koenning's 4-2-5 defense, and Saturday was hardly the first time they've suffered these kinds of breakdowns. They happened plenty of times, too, in the 70-41 loss at East Carolina.
And they happened last season. And the season before that.
Allowing long plays in the passing game has been a near-constant issue for this defense, though in the second half of the season last year the Tar Heels didn't allow as many of those plays. Still, here they are again, with as many defensive breakdowns as ever.
So the question is how the team goes about correcting the mental mistakes.
“We go through it on film, and it's not always a pretty sight when you get called out in front of everybody for a mistake like that,” Fedora said. “And then we go out on the field and we correct the mistake.
“That means we line up exactly with what the call was. If it's on offense, then we put the exact same defense out there, we run the play versus it, we make sure that it's corrected, we make sure everybody, whether they're a first-teamer or second-teamer, they understand what the correction was, why it happened and how it can happen.
“And then hopefully we learn from that mistake so we don't make that same mistake.”
Technically, perhaps, UNC might not be making the same mistakes over and over. There are going to be differences, from play to play, that determine which player should be where. Overall, though, it's basically the same thing over and over: blown assignments in the secondary, followed by more of them.
And then there were the penalties. Fedora said the team goes over those, too, and, later T.J. Thorpe, the junior receiver, told reporters (I'd stepped away from Thorpe's media session at this point) that players who commit mistakes have to stand in the Tar Heel Circle, which serves as a kind of confessional.
There, Thorpe said, players admit their mistakes. The team does up-downs. The idea behind all of this is that, eventually, the mistakes will be eliminated. Or at least reduced.
We've been talking about UNC's mistakes for a while now, though. Defensive lapses were a problem even in victories against Liberty and San Diego State. And the penalties? Fedora has been talking since the summer about the emphasis he has placed on reducing those. And then came 15 more of them, for 130 yards, in the defeat at Clemson on Saturday.
At some point, the talk has to translate into results. It hasn't happened yet.
In some ways, in fact, the problems seem to be getting worse. That was true with the penalties. UNC's 15 penalties were its most since it committed 15 in consecutive games against Virginia Tech and Miami during the 2012 season (UNC won both those games).
“We had four false starts on offense,” Fedora said. “Three of them were receivers. They couldn't get lined up correctly. I mean, that's – there's no excuse for that. There's no reason for that.”
Toward the end of his press conference, Fedora was asked if he'd spoken with his team about what's at stake against Virginia Tech this weekend. It will be the Tar Heels' first game against a Coastal Division opponent. The division, still, seems as wide open as ever. Fedora said he hadn't talked about those things.
“We have to get ourselves right right now,” he said. “And really it's not about who we play, it's still about our room and getting ourselves right. If we go out and we play hard and we take care of our job, then we've got a chance. If we don't, if we continue to make the mistakes that we're making mentally, then it'll be hard.
“So we've got to get those things cut out. We've got to make sure we know our assignments and for whatever reason, the focus has to be there, that we do our job and we do it every single play. Because, believe it or not, we don't have defenses called, or defensive schemes where we turn a guy loose. We don't have those. It may look like it, but we don't have that.”
He was joking, in part, but was also correct, though. At times UNC’s defensive mistakes are so egregious it does look like it has just decided to let receivers run free down the field, wide open. Fedora, again, said the team addressed those mistakes and corrected them on Sunday.
He has said similar things every week. Whether the Tar Heels’ actions support those words will determine which direction UNC goes from here.
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @_andrewcarter .