In the early days of this long, improbable streak, the coaching staff at North Carolina would talk about it, lament it, try to come up with ways to solve it – anything to help the Tar Heels secure their first interception of the season.
But now, UNC coach Larry Fedora said earlier this week, “now it’s gotten so old and tiresome, we don’t even bring it up.”
The Tar Heels have played 10 games. They have two games left in the regular season. And here in mid-November, more than three months after the start of preseason practice, UNC is still seeking its first interception.
The Tar Heels’ interception-less streak might be the most bizarre statistic of the college football season. Among the 128 teams that play at the FBS level – formerly known as Division I-A – UNC is the only team in the country without an interception.
Every other team has at least three interceptions. One-hundred and eight teams – including every other team in the state, and in the ACC – has intercepted at least five passes. And then there are the Tar Heels, wondering how this can be so.
“I can’t make sense of it,” Fedora said. “I’ll let y’all make sense of it. I can’t. And at this point, I don’t even dwell on it anymore. It’s either going to happen or it’s not, that’s all I can say about it. We’ve gotten our hands on balls and we haven’t brought them in.
“It’s not like we don’t practice it, I can tell you that.”
And it’s not like the Tar Heels (7-3, 5-2 ACC) don’t have experience with interceptions, either. Just last season, they intercepted 17 passes, which ranked tied for 14th nationally. Players who accounted for more than half of those interceptions returned, including M.J. Stewart, the cornerback who led UNC with four interceptions last season.
Stewart has come close a time or two to intercepting a pass this season. So has Des Lawrence, another cornerback who intercepted two passes last year. And so has Dominiquie Green, the safety who nearly intercepted a pass in the end zone during UNC’s 28-27 loss against Duke last Thursday night.
“We’ve got to make plays on the ball,” said Donnie Miles, a junior safety who has yet to intercept a college pass. “I don’t know what else to say about it. When the opportunity is there, we’ve got to make plays on the ball. When we get a chance to do it, we’ve got to come down with the football.”
If you’re wondering about the history, and about the last time an FBS team went an entire season without intercepting pass, then, well – you’re not alone. Jeff Williams, an NCAA official who is in charge of the official NCAA football record book, couldn’t identify when it last happened, or if it has happened.
Williams spent part of Tuesday searching through the NCAA’s statistical archives. He looked through records for every season between 1989 and 2016, and he couldn’t find an instance of a team finishing a season without an interception. Records before 1989, he wrote an email, do not include every FBS team – only the leaders in a statistical category in that given season.
“I have to believe it has happened before,” Williams wrote, “but clearly it hasn’t happened in the last 25 (plus) years. I think it’s safe to say that every FBS team since at least 1991 has had at least one interception during the season.”
And so UNC waits for its first. Earlier this season, Fedora and the coaching staff expressed optimism that eventually an interception would come – that it would have to, right? The Tar Heels’ game this weekend, against The Citadel, doesn’t bode well for ending the streak.
The Citadel, which uses the run-oriented triple-option offense, has attempted only 96 passes this season – the second fewest among FCS teams. A lack of opportunities, overall, has undoubtedly contributed to UNC’s interception-less streak.
The Tar Heels’ opponents have attempted 279 passes. Twenty-four teams have seen fewer. The teams that surround UNC in that statistical ranking, though – Purdue and Tulane – have combined to intercept 18 passes. And so the relative lack of interception opportunities hasn’t hurt them.
At UNC, the streak of interception futility has become comical – so strangely bizarre that all coaches and players can do is shrug and shake their heads and say they can’t really believe the Tar Heels have gone this long without an interception. Does the defense intercept passes in practice, at least?
“Not from me,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said with a smile. “Tell Des and M.J. I said that, too.”
Then Trubisky tried to offer a serious answer.
“I know they could catch – some of them, at least,” he said of UNC’s defensive backs. “I don’t have an answer for you. I wish they would just get a pick. We had a couple of opportunities in the game.
“And I’m watching on the sidelines, I’m literally jumping out of my chair, I think we have the ball. And then I have to sit back down because the ball hits the turf.”
Amid this long, barren journey into the interception wilderness, it has been a common sight.
The Citadel at UNC
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill
Watch online: ACC Network Extra