One of the most somber days of Larry Fedora’s six-year head coaching tenure at North Carolina ended the way any other home game ends, with him and his players lining up in the end zone closest to the student section, the band playing the alma mater.
It was an especially bleak scene on a bleak day, one that months ago UNC embraced with anticipation. The date and what it entailed always looked promising: Notre Dame in early October; a chance for the Tar Heels to showcase themselves and everything they hope a fall Saturday at Kenan Stadium can be.
And yet, what a dreadful day it was – overcast, dark and rainy, the stadium emptied long before the Tar Heels’ 33-10 defeat reached its merciful conclusion. By the time the players and coaches lined up for the alma mater, the student section had long cleared out.
It was a strange scene, the band playing its music, the players rocking slowly side to side while they faced rows upon rows of empty bleachers, a small group of students lining the very first row. UNC’s players and coaches might have outnumbered those remaining spectators in front of them.
And yet it was a scene that made sense, too, given the events of the day. That UNC lost on Saturday was not surprising – nor was it so that the Tar Heels lost by a significant margin. What was surprising, though, might have been how inept they looked along the way.
They didn’t generate a first down until their sixth possession. They gave up another touchdown of at least 70 yards. They called a puzzling play, backed deep into their own territory, that resulted in a safety just before halftime. They committed 10 penalties for 104 yards. Sometimes they didn’t block. Sometimes they didn’t tackle.
They looked lost, and did so for long stretches. And so could anyone have been surprised by the sad scene at the end, when they gathered in front of several sections of seats that were nearly empty, save for the most committed, or perhaps the most empathetic, of supporters?
“I mean, to be real with you, nobody wants to see a 1-5 team,” M.J. Stewart, the senior cornerback, said afterward, noting UNC’s record. “And that’s just keeping it real. If we want the fans to be here, we’ve got to win. And that’s the truth anywhere.”
There wasn’t much that could be said after this that Fedora hadn’t already said after losses against California and Louisville, Duke and Georgia Tech. He had spoken, after all of them, about the nebulous concept of “execution,” about how he needed to do better, and his players, too, and so on.
Before he repeated some of those things, again, Fedora acknowledged the repetitive nature of his postgame commentary this season – that the themes of demise have remained the same. Again there were execution breakdowns, and questionable plays called, and sloppiness.
“I know I come in here every week and it sounds like the same thing over and over,” Fedora said. “The energy level of our guys, the way they’re practicing – they’re giving it everything they’ve got out there. And, again, it comes down to me as the head coach putting them in a position to be successful.
“And I haven’t found a way to make that happen yet.”
And what, exactly, has inhibited his ability to do so?
“If I knew what it was, I would have changed it,” Fedora said. “I can assure you, every minute of the day that we’re working on it.”
He sounded defeated, as resigned to the reality as he has during his six seasons at UNC. This one started poorly with an opening-game defeat against Cal, and it has only taken a turn for worst since, the injuries and the defeats accumulating at an alarming rate.
The Tar Heels entered Saturday depleted, without eight starters lost for the season due to injury. UNC’s injury situation has grown so dire, and comically absurd, that even its punter, Tom Sheldon, suffered an injury on Saturday and left the game in the first quarter, not to return. So did Donnie Miles, a senior who starts at safety.
Injuries, though, don’t account for other troublesome aspects of UNC’s defeats. Like, for instance, defensive tackle Jalen Dalton committing another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which have become routine for him. Or strange play calls, for that matter.
The strangest of all on Saturday came with UNC on its own 1-yard line in the final minute of the first half. The Tar Heels had managed to do little offensively, yet they still had hope then, trailing only 14-7. On the first play of the series, UNC called a pass, and Chazz Surratt threw a long incompletion.
On the next play, the Tar Heels again lined up in their usual shotgun formation. Surratt handed off to Jordon Brown, the sophomore running back. Immediately, Notre Dame’s defense broke through into the backfield, and swarmed Brown in the end zone for a safety.
“We ran a basic zone play, and we turned some guys loose, and they hit us in the backfield,” Fedora said.
The moment seemed to deflate UNC, which has now generated fewer than 300 yards in consecutive games for the first time in Fedora’s tenure. Last week, during a loss at Georgia Tech, the UNC offense labored like it rarely has during the past six seasons. It was only slightly better on Saturday.
Which is to say it still played poorly. The injuries are among the most obvious reasons why. UNC has used a patchwork offensive line, and the receiving corps has been decimated. And yet injuries can only be part of the explanation, too – and not the entirety of it.
“I don’t know how you fix this,” said Surratt, the second-year freshman who completed 19 of his 42 attempts for 179 yards. “I’m not a coach. That’s more for Fedora. But for me, and every one of our players, we’ve just got to come back and get better and just execute. Execute the base plays that we’ve got called.”
He said the word “execute,” or a variation of it, nine times in the span of about 3½ minutes. For Surratt, and for most of UNC’s players, losing like this is new. Most of them coming from successful high school programs. UNC’s sophomores and juniors have only been on winning college teams, too.
At one point Surratt said, with a note of sadness, “I’ve never lost this much.” Moments later, he considered what Fedora had told reporters on Saturday – that Fedora had failed to put his players in a position to be successful. Was that true?
“He says that, but we’re the ones playing,” Surratt said. “So we look at that ourselves. We’ve got to look in the mirror first before we start talking about what the coach is doing.”
UNC has now lost eight consecutive games against major-conference opponents. Its last such victory came 11 months ago. Amid the injuries, the consistent mistakes, the defeats, it is becoming fair to wonder when the futility will end, and if the Tar Heels, in their current state, are capable of ending it.
“It’s a rough time on our team right now,” Stewart said, acknowledging the obvious. “It’s a lot of adversity right now. But we’re still pushing along. We still believe that the ball’s going to roll our way soon.”
It hasn’t often during the first half of the season, and it rarely did at all on Saturday, when what once seemed like an enviable opportunity – the kind around which to build a season, or at least a season-ticket package – turned into one of the bleakest days of Fedora’s tenure.