The 2017 North Carolina Tar Heels football season, which began with hope before quickly taking a demoralizing turn toward injury- and defeat-riddled despair, died on Saturday. It was 49 days old.
The exact time of death was not known, though it occurred at some point – likely during the second quarter – during the Tar Heels’ 59-7 defeat against Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium. Though it was relatively young, not even two full months old, the ailing season had been in especially poor health.
UNC sought to rescue its season, and possibly extend its life, with a scheduled trip to the mountains of southwestern Virginia. That had once been the site, after all, of a close relative’s triumph: The Tar Heels’ 2015 season is still remembered for the Coastal Division-clinching overtime victory at Virginia Tech.
On Saturday, though, that long-ago victory, which UNC celebrated with memorable jubilation, was but a distant memory. In the same room where those Tar Heels gathered to rave about what that particular season had delivered them, these Tar Heels gathered to mourn their worst loss in Larry Fedora’s six seasons as head coach.
The season met its demise after the Tar Heels’ seventh defeat, which guarantees that this will become the 40th losing season in school history, and the 21st with at least seven losses. A postseason game is all but out of the question now, barring a bizarre turn of events.
Fedora, who is most responsible for maintaining faith in the life of a season, both from his players and the public, appeared too stunned to be distraught. He refused to acknowledge that the season has been lost, despite evidence to the contrary.
“I’ve got to do a better job of coaching,” he said, repeating a familiar refrain. “Our staff’s got to do a better job of coaching, and we’ve got to continue to try to find ways to put those guys in a position where they can be successful.”
He had said some of those same things after recent defeats against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Virginia. After each of those losses, the Tar Heels went to work in effort to give their season much-needed life. The result on Saturday, albeit against the vivacious Hokies (6-1, 2-1 ACC), ranked 14th nationally, proved those efforts to be futile.
UNC’s season arrived here in a perilous state. Its physical pain could be easily quantified – 16 players lost for the season, several of them starters – but its mental pain, amid a growing list of defeats, largely remained hidden. Observers wondered, not without cause, how much more the season could take.
The answer appeared to arrive in the first half on Saturday, when the Hokies scored three touchdowns with their offense on the sideline. Those three touchdowns doomed the Tar Heels (1-7, 0-5 ACC) in different ways, and each one seemed to deflate UNC a little more.
First, in the first quarter, there was the 12-yard fumble return for a touchdown, which came after Chazz Surratt, the Tar Heels’ quarterback, lost his grip while under tremendous duress. UNC’s season had endured such misery before, but now it had grown brittle.
“I just don’t know,” Fedora said of what he saw when Surratt lost the ball. “I’ll have to see it.”
Next, about 2½ minutes later, came Greg Stroman’s 91-yard punt return for a touchdown. After that, with UNC trailing 14-0, its season appeared on the brink. What pushed it over the edge, perhaps, came with a little less than two minutes remaining in the first half.
By then Brandon Harris, whose summer transfer from LSU provided this season with one of its original causes for hope, had relieved Surratt at quarterback. Interceptions have been problematic for Harris, though, and so it was again then, not long before halftime.
Reggie Floyd intercepted Harris, and then returned the interception 69 yards for a touchdown. For the Tar Heels, it was a harrowing sight, indeed, and one that might have been most responsible for putting their season out of its misery.
That couldn’t be said for certain, though, given several contributing factors. The penalties – 14 of them, for 100 yards – were among them. UNC entered Saturday among the most penalized teams in the country, and then showed why.
The offensive woes contributed to the downfall, too. The offense usually thrived in Fedora’s first five seasons, and usually helped the Tar Heels overcome other maladies. But now, with that long injury list, and with porous protection from the offensive line, the offense has become an illness of its own.
The Tar Heels averaged but 2.7 yards per play on Saturday, their second-worst output under Fedora. They finished with 11 first downs. They didn’t score until early in the fourth quarter, with the final result, along with the fate of this season, already decided.
Amid the loss – both of the game and of the hope of accomplishing their greater goals – Fedora on Saturday tried to preach to his players the importance of remaining together. Some sounded mournful afterward, yet they are trying to comfort each other.
“We’re really just trying to stick together as a family,” Surratt said. “That’s the only thing (Fedora’s) preaching to us. Times are tough right now, but we’re going to eventually turn it around, and we’ve just got to keep believing, keep fighting.”
M.J. Stewart, a senior cornerback, praised the effort, at least. He didn’t detect that his teammates had lost faith, even if they’ve lost their season.
They were trying, he said, even when all seemed lost on Saturday. Stewart afterward was one of several players who spoke of playing for “pride” during the next month, their primary goals long out of reach.
“It just felt like one of those days,” Stewart said. “The ball didn’t bounce our way today. At all. It felt like, it felt like it was a one-sided game. But the guys – they fought the whole game. Never hung their heads. So that’s all I can ask for. … The effort’s always there. It’s just execution.”
What, then, of the execution that allowed UNC’s season to endure this kind of fate?
Afterward, Fedora considered what needed to change, beyond the lost hope for this season. It didn’t sound as though he planned any significant changes.
“You do the same thing you do every week,” he said. “You don’t change. I mean, you’ve got a sound philosophy that you believe in, and you continue to work, and you work hard and you keep getting your kids to continue to believe and you just keep moving. That’s all you do.”
The Tar Heels’ 2017 season is survived by a 10-game losing streak against major-conference opponents; UNC’s remaining four games, which will have little bearing on where it finishes in the ACC; and UNC’s 2015 season, which continues to live on as a reminder of much happier times.