CHAPEL HILL — It’s turning into a retro football season for North Carolina, and not in a good way.
Not since Mack Brown’s first two teams suffered back-to-back 1–10 seasons in 1988 and 1989 have the Tar Heels been so inept on offense and made so many unforced errors and unfortunate decisions.
Losing half of their starters to injuries after already trying to find replacements for most of last year’s offensive production certainly is playing a role. Saturday’s 33–10 home loss to No. 21 Notre Dame dropped the Tar Heels to 1–5 and led many to wonder what is left to salvage from the season.
“The thing is we have to make the ordinary play,” said Coach Larry Fedora, who had trouble coming up with answers. “We don’t have to do anything superhuman, just do the things we do in practice every day. If we do that, we have a chance.”
One of the few reasons for Tar Heels fans to smile was when there were announcements about Late Night With Roy coming up Friday night. Basketball season will give them hope that, for the most part, appears to be lost for this football season.
You have to go back to the Butch Davis era and the 2009 season to find a UNC team that scored 10 points or fewer in consecutive games (7 vs. Georgia Tech on Sept. 26 and 3 vs. Virginia on Oct. 3.)
That was in an 8–5 season and this is a Fedora offense that is supposed to high-flying and consistently productive. But if you don’t have the players and limit your playbook because of it, the frustrations that are playing out can’t be that surprising.
In those two forgettable seasons under Brown, UNC had only one total win over a power-five school (Georgia Tech in 1988). It seems that these Tar Heels will be lucky to get one power-five win this season with the only victory so far against Old Dominion.
The offense was there when UNC scored at least 30 points in the first two games, then 53 against ODU. But the 17-point output against Duke, along with more injuries, was the start of the undoing of the offense, which scored only seven points in a blowout loss at Georgia Tech.
“The energy level of our guys and the way they practice, they’re giving everything they’ve got out there,” Fedora said. “Again, it comes down to me as the head coach putting them in position to be successful. I haven’t found a way to make that happen.”
It’s not bad enough that your red-shirt freshman quarterback is living dangerously with his passing decisions much of the game and seems to always telegraph where he’s going to throw. Add to that a patchwork offensive line that sometimes gave pass rushers little resistance — even in one case senior tackle Bentley Spain letting a rusher go past — and moving the ball is a particular struggle.
The issues started early as UNC went three and out in its first five possessions.
“It’s just lack of execution, really. It’s tough. It hurts. Our defense is playing well there so we want to get some drives going,” said quarterback Chazz Surratt, who completed 19 of 42 passes for 179 yards and one touchdown while being sacked twice.
“I don’t know how you fix it. I’m not a coach. That’s more for Fedora,” Surratt said. “For me and every one of the players, you’ve just go to come out and get better and, you know, just execute the base plays.”
Surratt connected with Anthony Ratliff-Williams on a touchdown pass, only to have a holding call nullify the score. When it rains, it pours. And it was literally pouring rain after that fourth-quarter sequence forced UNC to settle for a field goal.
“I don’t think it’s Fedora,” Surratt said. “We’ve got a lot of base stuff called and stuff we should be executing. We’ve just got to execute the plays that get called.”
There was an embarrassing non-contact fumble from Surratt and an awkward interception when Irish defender Julian Okwara tipped it, then pulled the ball down.
“I’ve just got to maneuver him and get on top of him and he made a great play picking it off,” Surratt said.
It was bad enough that the biggest positive other than the defense in the first half was the booming kicking of Aussie punter Tom Sheldon. But then he, too, joined the growing list of injured players after averaging 53 yards on his three punts.
With the game still within reach late in the first half and the ball at its own 1, UNC inexplicably stuck with the shot-gun formation. The result was Jordon Brown being tackled in the end zone for a safety.
“We threw the ball down the field,” Fedora said, explaining his thinking at the end of the first half. “We thought we could get a double move on a guy and we didn’t. We were going to run a basic zone play and we turned some guys loose and they hit us in the backfield.”
The defense gave up some long drives and some big plays. But it did well for much of the way and gave UNC a chance to stay in the game. The Tar Heels couldn’t muster enough offense to take advantage of it.
“That was tough,” Surratt said. “It was 14-7 and they get that safety. That hurts. Then, the pick to start the second half, so yeah those are two big plays that hurt.”
Surratt, like many players who were used to winning in high school or while at Carolina, is frustrated to be in situations he’s never before experienced.
“Everybody doesn’t want to lose,” Surratt said. “But, as a group, we’ve got enough leaders on the team to bring the guys together and we’ve just got to keep our heads up. Keep playing, keep working. It is tough. I’ve never lost this much. But this is all part of the process and it’s going to make it sweeter when we do start winning.”
The question becomes: Will that winning be next year after enduring a rebuilding season in 2017, or will the Tar Heels somehow get it together for some wins this season?
The players and coaches probably have hope but few answers.