CHAPEL HILL — Injury-depleted and inexperienced in some positions, the margin for error on defense for North Carolina is small.
The difference between another frustrating loss and finally getting a win Saturday could have been a couple of feet — M.J. Stewart’s two feet. He recovered a fumble and was on his way to the end zone for a game-changing touchdown. But both feet were out of bounds.
Or Cayson Collins, who said he thought he was a couple of moves away from a long return when he recovered a late fumble.
Those plays didn’t happen and they gave up the big play — which football players and coaches are fond of calling “catastrophic” — in a 20–14 loss to Virginia to drop the Tar Heels to 1–6.
It was another case of regrets for all of the above, the big play being an 81-yard pass play from Cavaliers quarterback Kurt Benkert to Olamide Zaccheaus on a short pass.
“There is no margin of error for our team right now,” UNC Coach Larry Fedora said. “They throw a five-yard out, is what they did, and we miss a tackle there and we miss a tackle downfield. We talk about it all week … the catastrophics. Somebody’s got to erase the mistake. Somebody’s got to get the guy so we can line up and play another down. But, listen, our defense played hard. That was one play, but they played hard.”
Fedora’s offenses usually score so many points that giving up 20 rarely is a problem. Not this season. Not when your opponent collects more yards returning interceptions (56) than the number of passing yards you gain (46). Not when you get more penalty yards (52) than passing yards.
Stewart’s near-miss came in the fourth quarter with the Tar Heels down by six after Collins knocked the ball away from Cavaliers running back Chris Sharp. He swiped the ball and sped toward the end zone but was obviously out of bounds.
“I was close to the sideline but I thought I was inbounds,” Stewart, a senior defensive back, said of what nearly was a huge play that would have led to a touchdown. “That’s a missed big opportunity on my part. I’ve got to have a little more football IQ and know where I am on the field.”
When it was obvious that there was no reason to continue toward the end zone, he threw the ball to the ground.
“That was more of frustration with myself and, I thought, ‘finally I have a chance to get in the end zone.’ That was just frustration from that play, not necessarily the season,” Stewart said.
Later in that long Virginia drive, Collins again forced a fumble, this one from Benkert. This time he was able to grab it and return it 13 yards. But he wanted more.
“That one hurt. Yeah, looking back at it, I feel like there were some things …” Collins, a senior linebacker who had 12 tackles, said of what he could have done out of that opportunity. “I could have cut inside … that one hurt. But you’ve just got to make some plays that are presented in front of you. I was able to get the ball in, get what I could and it just didn’t turn out like I wanted to.”
The biggest frustration Saturday on the defensive side, though, had to be the short Virginia pass that went for a big play — the sort of play that the unit seems to give up every game at least once.
“That’s just missed tackling, that’s all it is,” Stewart said. “I was a part of that too, I’ve got to get down from the backside. I have to make that tackle. He went up the sideline, I had a chance to get it down and didn’t get it down, so I had to make that play.”
With Carolina’s luck this season, it seems like if one defender makes a mistake, the opponent is going to exploit it.
“We just need to make sure we play attention and get our assignments done,” said redshirt freshman defensive end Tomon Fox, who had two sacks. “That’s really all it is. If one guy messes up, it might go a long distance but we still got to be able to run to the ball and stop it before it breaks out like that.”
Overall, the Tar Heels played well on defense. They did a better job of preventing third-down conversions (Virginia was only 4-of-16), but the Cavaliers converted all three times when they went for it on fourth down. But, again, that small margin of error doomed them in the end.
“I feel we played pretty decent on defense,” Stewart said. “It’s always a few plays every game that we kind of break down, whether that’s missed tackles or catastrophic plays. It’s always a few plays and it ends up biting us every time.”
There’s another big recurring factor in every UNC loss this season: fatigue sets in on defense as the time of possession continues to be one-sided. Under Fedora’s offensive scheme, time of possession is one-sided even when things are going well. And that obviously hasn’t been the case this season.
The dynamic has been particularly crazy in recent games. Against Virginia, the Cavaliers had the ball nearly 20 minutes more and ran 78 plays compared to only 53 for Carolina. Virginia’s last drive that ended with Collins forcing a fumble took 8 minutes, 26 seconds.
“We try not to get tired, we try to play through it,” Fox said. “We know we were on the field for too long and we just have to get off faster and get off the field on third down more. Just do our jobs and make plays. We have to keep the mentality of really, no matter what point the game is, you have to keep the energy high just so you keep making plays.”
Just like the marathoner laboring at mile 24 to try to maintain the same pace, it’s much easier to talk about doing that than to actually do it.
“It wears on you a little bit,” junior safety J.K. Britt said. “But going into the season, the defense … we wanted to be the one to be leaned on, so in these situations, we expect to win the game. So, we know we just need to fight and get over it.”
Even with the progress shown against Virginia, it’s been a struggle for a defensive unit that was supposed to be the strength of this Carolina team.
Just getting another win at this point would be an accomplishment for these Tar Heels, who will need to win all five of their remaining games to avoid a losing season. That would be a miraculous and unexpected outcome, as would just winning next Saturday at Virginia Tech.