UNC tries to take lessons from wet, miserable loss against Virginia Tech

Larry Fedora began his weekly press conference at North Carolina on Monday by referencing that old cliché, the one about how things are never as good as they seem or never as bad, either.

“You know the old saying,” Fedora said, before repeating how it’s never as bad as it seemed.

Except in this case, “well, it was,” he said.

When Fedora and his staff reviewed the film, the Tar Heels’ performance on Saturday during their 34-3 defeat against Virginia Tech was, he said, as bad it looked the first time, live and in person. That’s saying something.

Fedora, in his fifth season as UNC’s head coach, had never experienced anything like Saturday, when during a steady downpour and through consistent 20 mph winds, his offense mustered 131 yards and averaged 2.1 yards per play. Certainly the Virginia Tech defense wreaked its own havoc.

But so did the terrible weather, which never relented. Both quarterbacks – Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans and UNC’s Mitch Trubisky – had to play through it, and had to try, somehow, to throw a wet, heavy, water-logged ball.

Neither quarterback played well but the conditions especially hindered Trubisky.

“I just couldn’t put what I wanted on it,” he said. “It is what it is. The ball was heavier than it usually is.”

For UNC, the question after that kind of performance, in those kind of conditions, quickly became how to assess it. Do you review the film like normal, knowing that it’s extremely rare to play a football game in what UNC and Virginia Tech (and other local teams) endured on Saturday?

Do you treat mistakes the same way? Are players graded with as much attention to detail as they would have been had the game been played under sunny, clear skies? Fedora essentially answered all of those questions in the affirmative on Monday. It wasn’t, he said, as if the results could simply be discarded.

“We spent the same amount of time as we do, always,” Fedora said, asked how much time he’d dedicated to reviewing what happened. “We don’t discount any of the games, so we make sure that they understood what had to be done, and why things happened the way they did. And it was just, offensively, very uncharacteristic.

“There were so many mistakes all over the place.”

Those mistakes included dropped passes. They included inattention to detail, and missed assignments. Trubisky made poor decisions, at times. Upon review, Fedora said, no one played well offensively. Not any skill player. Not any lineman.

Fedora made his own mistakes. One of them came when a snap sailed high over the Virginia Tech punter. On that play, UNC had sent no one to rush the punter, and he had time to run back, retrieve the ball and get off a punt – a poor punt that only traveled 13 yards past the line of scrimmage, but a punt, nonetheless.

“There’s tremendous amount of pressure on a punt team in those situations,” Fedora said. “And I would say that I would have put more block situations in and come after them more. The one that ended up being snapped over their head, we were in a return mode there, and so I had nobody with their eyes on it. So that’s my fault.”

For the Tar Heels, there was fault to go around on Saturday. Their 131 yards of offense were their fewest since 1999, and that meager total spoke to the offensive ineptitude on Saturday.

And yet the defense, which played well, all things considered, made its own mistakes. Special teams wasn’t without fault, especially when Tom Sheldon, the UNC punter, fumbled a punt snap deep inside UNC territory. That gaffe gave the Hokies possession inside the Tar Heels’ 5-yard line, and Virginia Tech scored a touchdown moments later.

Fedora said it after the game on Saturday and he said it again on Monday: His team simply never got anything going. In the aftermath, the Tar Heels tried to move on and take what lessons they could learn from an uncharacteristically bad performance on an uncharacteristically miserable day. Their greatest lesson might have been in building resiliency in adverse conditions.

UNC showed that during comeback victories against Pittsburgh and Florida State. The grit that Fedora has often praised, though, melted away in the rain at Kenan Stadium on Saturday.

“It’s got to be a mindset,” Trubisky said. “We’ve just got to find a way. ... We’ve just got to realize if we come across that situation again, we can’t make excuses, we’ve got to make it happen.”