Luke DeCock

Fine margins adding up to big gap for UNC’s Larry Fedora after third straight Duke loss

It’s a long walk from the field at Wallace Wade Stadium to the visiting locker rooms, in Duke’s field house at the far end of the practice fields. Larry Fedora made that walk Saturday after yet another loss, while Duke’s Trevon McSwain rode the Victory Bell around like a ringing rodeo bronco, and for Fedora it had the bell-tolling sense of a long walk toward oblivion.

North Carolina continues to lose by the finest of margins, a play here, one critical fumble or dropped pass there, and Saturday’s 42-35 loss to Duke was no different. The Tar Heels had a 39-yard Hail Mary knocked down in the end zone as time expired, and crazier things have happened. Crazier things happened Saturday in a game that saw 11 players score 11 touchdowns.

But it was another loss, North Carolina’s third straight to Duke. As close as North Carolina may be to winning week after week, the losses continue to pile up week after week. As much as the Tar Heels continue to fight, they cannot escape the overwhelming sense of irrelevance that continues to envelop North Carolina’s football program like poison fog.

“You sleep at night because you know you’re not going to get outworked,” Fedora said. “You’re going to work as hard as anybody there is. These kids are going to continue to work hard and it’ll happen. I truly believe that.”

As fine as the margins may be, they add up to a single win this season, over (potential Coastal Division champion) Pittsburgh. The Tar Heels have lost three straight to Duke, two straight to N.C. State and three straight to East Carolina, leaving Fedora 6-11 against in-state rivals. North Carolina hasn’t beaten a Power 5 opponent other than Pitt in more than two years, going from 11-3 to 8-5 to 3-9 to 1-8.

Fedora would argue, and he might be right, that the downward trajectory probably doesn’t reflect the state of the program. A goal-line fumble against Virginia Tech, a double-overtime loss at Syracuse, this psuedo-Big 12 shootout against Duke – any or all of those three could have gone the other way with the flap of a butterfly wing in Beijing and this conversation isn’t happening. But it is. Over and over again.

“You’re going to hear Fedora go take the blame,” running back Michael Carter said. “It’s not his fault. It’s not. A lot of people giving hate. It’s not his fault. He put us in positions to win. We let it slip. … I can’t really think of a team that was flat-out better than us this year. I can’t.”

Give the Tar Heels a replacement-level ACC quarterback who can make a downfield throw, which Nathan Elliott for all his commendable tenacity and leadership cannot, and this is probably a .500 team and no one’s googling Fedora’s buyout while watching the game.

Give the Tar Heels a former walk-on like Daniel Jones, who set a new opponent record against UNC with 547 yards of offense, more than Lamar Jackson’s previous mark and more than North Carolina’s entire team could muster Saturday, and the Tar Heels might be where Duke is: out of Coastal contention, but with 8-4 well within reach and awash in all the good feelings North Carolina lacks. The Blue Devils are assured of a bowl appearance for the sixth time in seven seasons, no paint needed for the Victory Bell as David Cutcliffe shook and shimmied his way onto the internet forever.

The quarterback situation on Fedora, of course. The failure to recruit or develop a replacement for Mitch Trubisky has now doomed this program to two years in the football wilderness, although the two true freshmen the Tar Heels tried in desperation this season both looked capable before both got hurt. (A gimpy Cade Fortin entered the game to chuck the final throw Saturday.) And Elliott was effective enough in the first half, before Duke clamped down on North Carolina’s outside running game and forced the Tar Heels into a bunch of horizontal throws that went nowhere.

The less spoken about the defense since Gene Chizik left, the better.

It’s not a conversation anyone at North Carolina wants to have, not with Fedora’s $12 million buyout, not after he shepherded this program through NCAA sanctions and scholarship reductions and came out the other side with a division title. But a good chunk of the political capital Fedora might have accumulated was squandered this summer, with the shoe-selling suspensions and his media-day comments about the War on Football. Going 4-16 over a two-year span with wins over Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Western Carolina and Pittsburgh tends to force the issue anyway.

Fedora was less defiant than he was philosophical Saturday. He doesn’t need to defend his team’s effort, which is apparent to anyone despite the results, and he can’t defend his record. All he can say is that he believes what they’re doing will bring success in the long run. That may be true, with the right quarterback and a play or two that goes the other way.

When you win two ACC games in two years and lose six straight against your two biggest rivals, which is where North Carolina will be with a loss to N.C. State in two weeks, you don’t always get that chance. That bell can’t be unrung.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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