Fine mar­gins, big gap for UNC

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY LUKE DECOCK lde­cock@new­sob­server.com

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 teams. 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 dou­bleover­time 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 is 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 twoyear 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.

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