Luke DeCock

DeCock: Tar Heels continue to raise questions instead of finding answers

UNC defensive coordinator for cornerbacks Dan Disch, right, and coach Larry Fedora work the sideline during the first half against Virginia Tech.
UNC defensive coordinator for cornerbacks Dan Disch, right, and coach Larry Fedora work the sideline during the first half against Virginia Tech. rwillett@newsobserver.com

A few fans exiting the west end zone of Kenan Stadium chanted “Fire Fedora!” as they worked their way through the concourse. A handful of others clapped along.

Athletic directors and big-money boosters are better at taking a long-term view than disgruntled students after a disheartening loss, but there’s no dismissing the ugly mood growing around Larry Fedora and North Carolina football. In a season where much progress was expected, the Tar Heels have only regressed.

After two defensive embarrassments in losses at East Carolina and Clemson, the Tar Heels’ offense imploded in Saturday’s 34-17 loss to Virginia Tech. It may have been the most important game of North Carolina’s season, a must-win for both teams if they were to harbor any hopes of competing in the Coastal Division, not to mention setting the tone for everything that follows.

“There’s enough good things within the game to give you hope that you could end up being a really good football team,” one of the coaches said afterward, and it wasn’t Fedora. Frank Beamer and the Hokies found some answers Saturday, Fedora and the Tar Heels only more questions.

Fedora himself ratcheted up expectations before the season by talking about breaking through the program’s eight-win ceiling. “It’s time,” he said. Now the Tar Heels are 2-3, 0-2 in the Coastal Division, and time is already running out.

The Tar Heels were down double digits at halftime in three straight losses, blown away by East Carolina and Clemson, manhandled by Virginia Tech. North Carolina rebounded from a 1-5 start last season to finish 7-6, but to expect a similar turnaround seems unrealistic given the manner of these losses.

“We’ll find out,” Fedora said, not for the first time. “That’s hard to say.”

North Carolina has all the markings of a team in disarray, from the constant penalties to the dropped passes to the missed tackles. The scholarship restrictions imposed by the NCAA have taken their toll, especially on the offensive line and across the defense, but there’s no excuse for the bizarre play-calling on offense and total breakdowns on defense that have alternately plagued the Tar Heels this season.

Topping the long list of questionable decisions: Letting backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky throw the ball on the final possession of the first half. Instead of playing conservatively and going into halftime down 17-3, Fedora rolled the dice with Trubisky in his second series of the game. Fedora said he was looking for “a spark” that would “turn that tide.”

Trubisky threw a pass toward the sideline that was easily intercepted – when the receiver cut his route short, Fedora said. Virginia Tech returned it for a touchdown to go up 24-3.

The Tar Heels would never recover. They took two penalties on the first two plays of their first drive of the second half. They dropped passes left and right. Marquise Williams was sacked five times. Quinshad Davis and Ryan Switzer continue to go criminally under-utilized.

North Carolina’s staff boasts two associate head coaches, two defensive coordinators and two offensive coordinators – and not nearly enough solutions for these persistent problems.

If this meltdown continues, and it certainly shows no signs of abating, Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham will have to ask some difficult questions. If the Tar Heels collapse and finish 2-10, there will be difficult answers. What about 4-8? What about 6-6? Any and all of that appears well within the realm of possibility.

After this, it’s tough to look at the schedule and pick out winnable games. They all look tough when you’ve played this poorly over a three-game stretch.

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