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UNC’s decision to go for it reflects Larry Fedora’s boldness

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora confers with quarterback Mitch Trubisky before the final play of the first half against Illinois on Saturday, September 10, 2016 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora confers with quarterback Mitch Trubisky before the final play of the first half against Illinois on Saturday, September 10, 2016 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois. rwillett@newsobserver.com

You probably wouldn’t find support for the decision in any coaching textbooks or how-to-call-a-game manuals, if those exist. And immediately, and predictably, North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora became the subject of social media scorn when the move backfired.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. The decision didn’t play a role in the outcome of the Tar Heels’ 48-23 victory at Illinois on Saturday. Nonetheless it’s worth exploring, anyway, because the moment provides insight into Fedora’s psychology, and his willingness to deviate from the norm and expected.

With two seconds remaining in the first half, the Tar Heels faced a third-and-1 from the Illinois’ 2-yard-line. UNC led 24-16 at the time. There is no debate, no argument, about the safe decision – the obvious decision – in that situation.

Kick a field goal and take the points. It would have been about as automatic a field goal as Nick Weiler, the Tar Heels’ kicker, ever could have attempted. And yet Fedora, in his fifth season as UNC’s head coach, had another idea.

“Here’s my thinking,” he said later. “We get the field goal, ah, all right, we’re going to go up by 11. Don’t know how much momentum we were going to create for ourselves. Guys were going to be disappointed. And I knew we were going to get the ball back (to start) the second half.”

And so he sent his offense on the field. Mitch Trubisky, the UNC quarterback, took the snap. He attempted a quick pass to Mack Hollins, slanting across the middle. The pass fell incomplete, the half ended and UNC took its eight-point lead into the locker room, when it could have easily been an 11-point lead.

“My fault,” Fedora said.

I love the call. We had everything we wanted, we’ve just got to make a play.

Mitch Trubisky

During his postgame session with reporters Fedora was quick to emphasize that he alone had decided to go for the touchdown. Twice he said it had been “all me” – as if anyone else on his staff could have made the final call.

Clearly, Fedora wanted to build momentum and generate enthusiasm among his players. He figured, too, that UNC had a bit of a cushion if the decision failed. The Tar Heels received the opening kickoff of the second half.

That drive ended at the Illinois’ 25-yard-line, where Weiler missed a 42-yard field-goal attempt. Which meant Illinois took over early in the third quarter with a chance to tie the score with a touchdown and 2-point conversion.

The Illini went three-and-out, though, and UNC quickly scored a touchdown on its next drive. The rout was on, and the fallout of Fedora’s decision to go for a touchdown before halftime quickly faded and became irrelevant to the outcome.

And yet it remains relevant to the players. They learned their head coach isn’t afraid of making a bold move – even if it’s not necessarily the smart, most proven move.

“I love the call,” Trubisky said afterward. “We had everything we wanted, we’ve just got to make a play.”

Elijah Hood, the junior running back, believed in it, too. And so while the move didn’t make a lot of sense to the keyboard-handed quarterbacks (there needs to be an updated, modern version of “armchair quarterbacks”), it made perfect sense to Fedora’s players.

“We’re being aggressive, we’re playing football,” Hood said. “We’re trying to win. So things like that – you’ve got to take chances if you want to win a game.”

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