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UNC’s direction in question following ugly 40-21 loss to Rutgers

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora talks to his team during the second half of the Quick Lane Bowl NCAA college football game against Rutgers in Detroit.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora talks to his team during the second half of the Quick Lane Bowl NCAA college football game against Rutgers in Detroit. AP

DETROIT After a season unlike any he had ever experienced – and not in a good way – North Carolina sophomore receiver Ryan Switzer stood outside his team’s locker room on Friday night and spoke with a sense of defiance, with emotion, about another poor game at the end of a long season.

The Tar Heels had just ended their season with another defeat – a 40-21 loss against Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl – and Switzer was talking about searching both for answers and for teammates with the right kind of drive and determination.

“We’ll find the guys that want to grind with us,” he said, “that want to go through the spring ball and (offseason workouts) and work their tails off to get to next season.”

That, Switzer indicated, had been the problem all along for these Tar Heels, who at 6-7 finished with their first losing season – the vacated years of 2008 and 2009 notwithstanding – since 2007. Switzer wasn’t the only one who spoke of of a lack of effort and a lack of pride.

Senior safety Tim Scott spoke of those things, too, after his final college game.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Scott said quietly. “But you get beat like that when you don’t give effort. So like I’ve said in the past, we have moments – a lot of moments – when we don’t give effort and we’re just lazy and that’s what happened the majority of the game. And the same result happened.”

This was supposed to be a breakout season for the Tar Heels, who entered their third season under coach Larry Fedora with aspirations and the hope, realistic or not, of winning the ACC’s Coastal Division. In the days before preseason practice began, way back in July, Fedora said, “It’s time.”

Time for UNC to take the next step. Time for it to win more than eight games for the first time since 1997.

Instead, time and again, his team turned in puzzling performance after puzzling performance. The 70-41 defeat against East Carolina in September is a distant memory now, but the loss against Rutgers on Friday at Ford Field was similar in some ways. It was similar, too, to the 35-7 defeat against N.C. State in the regular-season finale.

Oh, how the Tar Heels wanted another chance after that game. That’s what brought them motivation for the Quick Lane Bowl, they said – the opportunity to end the season on a positive, and the chance to build momentum for the long months ahead when players toil in the weight room and through conditioning drills, all the while dreaming of the start of a new season.

Can there be hope after this? Fedora tried to say there was.

He pointed to the youth. He counted 10 returning starters on offense. Six or seven on defense.

He said UNC was better on Friday night than it was on Friday afternoon. Losing, he said, could provide some good experience, too.

“So I think the future is very bright,” he said. “I think we’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of young talent, that’s just going to grow and mature.”

Even so, when Fedora enters his fourth season he will be surrounded not by high expectations and talk of a Coastal Division championship but instead by no shortage of questions. The direction UNC is headed is officially in doubt after another no-show performance against Rutgers.

The Scarlet Knights arrived in Detroit ranked 96th nationally in total defense and 81st nationally in total offense. Yet they excelled in all areas against UNC.

The Tar Heels labored through one of their poorest offensive games of the season – again, following the debacle against N.C. State – and they surrendered 524 yards. Rutgers had never generated more this season. Rutgers ran for 340 yards – the third time UNC had allowed 300 rushing yards this season.

It was a record-breaking year for the Tar Heels’ defense. Never before had they allowed so many yards and so many points. Seven times they gave up 500 yards. Six times they allowed 40 or more points.

In the moments after he addressed his players following the loss, Fedora greeted reporters and stated the obvious: “Well,” he said. “It’s not the way we want to finish up a season but it is what it is.”

This is what it was, for UNC: a season with more lows than highs, and one that featured perhaps the worst defense in school history. The Tar Heels began the season with grand aspirations but finished it in a low-level bowl game in a mostly empty stadium, against mediocre competition that proved far too good.

Scott blamed the effort. Switzer, meanwhile, said some players cared a lot more than others. He hinted at a division between the younger members of the team – the players Fedora and his staff have recruited – and the older members of the team, who were recruited before Fedora arrived in 2012.

Switzer thought back to all the work before the season. He thought about the weight lifting and the running, the conditioning drills and the grueling preseason practices. He said it was “a waste” – all of it – because of how the Tar Heels spent the past three and a half months floundering.

And then came the last insult: an ugly loss to Rutgers in an after thought of a bowl game in front of about 40,000 empty seats. At least not all that many people saw it live and in person.

“When you’re not all in, when you’re not buying into everything that the coaches and your teammates are doing, it makes for a losing season, like we had this year,” Switzer said. “So we’ve got some soul-searching to do. A lot of guys need to really figure out whether they really want to be here or not.”

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