Floundering

“First, let me start off congratulating Bronco (Mendenhall) and his team,” Larry Fedora began at his postgame press conference after Carolina’s 14-20 loss to Virginia. “Well-coached team,” he continued, “they played extremely hard and played a very good football game.”

Fedora’s been doing a lot of that lately, congratulating his opponent. Bronco. Brian. Paul. David. Bobby. Justin. A lot of good coaches. A lot of well-coached teams.

Once again, Carolina found a way to lose on Saturday. The Tar Heels again had a second-half lead, again had opportunities to snatch what would have been their first win over a Power 5 team since November 5, 2016. But as injuries and inexperience but Carolina behind the 8-ball, there was no room for error. And they made errors.

Brandon Harris, starting the game in place of Chazz Surratt, threw three bad interceptions. The Tar Heel defense at times put on a display that looked like a YouTube video called ‘How Not To Tackle.’ Or even, ‘How to Leave Somebody Open On A Crucial Play.’ And the Tar Heels don’t trust their kicking game at all.

Carolina had the chance to win the game down the stretch, too. A great sack-forced fumble from Malik Carney and a recovery by Cayson Collins (who was making plays when he wasn’t hurt) set the Tar Heel offense up with the ball and two timeouts, trailing by six with just under three minutes to go 60 yards. Get to the end zone, kick the extra point and escape with a win.

But did you trust this Carolina team to accomplish that?

Fans will point, rightly, to a missed face mask call that caused Harris to be sacked on 4th and 9, effectively ending the game. Virginia’s Chris Peace got his hand on Harris’s mask as the quarterback was moving away, causing Harris to lose his footing and go to the ground. It was a blatant missed call by the officiating staff. It’s also a play that can’t be reviewed and called after the fact. Still, Fedora called a timeout after the turnover on downs, one assumes just to yell at the officiating crew.

It was a bad missed call. It cost Carolina the ball and a first down and a shot to win the game. Had the penalty been called, the Tar Heels would have had 1st and 10 at the Virginia 22, with a minute and five or so seconds to play and a timeout.

But consider what happened just prior to the sack. On 1st and 10 from the Virginia 38, Michael Carter rushed for a single yard. Then, Harris –whose touch was not good on the deep ball on Saturday– overthrew Anthony Ratliff-Williams in the end zone. Then a screen to Dazz Newsome went for no gain. Suddenly, 1st and 10 at the 38 was 4th and 9 at the 37. That’s why you didn’t trust this offense to score in the first place, and why you weren’t sure they could have actually come through had the penalty been called.

But here we are. Another opposing coach congratulated; another Tar Heel opponent leaving Chapel Hill with a win. For the sixth time in a row.

As I wrote last week, it’s a dangerous time for Carolina football. The events of Friday lifted a cloud over the athletic department, and Fedora can now recruit knowing that the team won’t undergo another postseason ban or further loss of scholarships. But the results on the field aren’t helping him.

The momentum of 2015 is gone. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Duke and Miami have passed by Carolina in the Coastal Division. Over in Raleigh, NC State is positioning itself to play in the ACC Championship Game. Carolina football is floundering.

One wonders what happened in practice this week that Fedora turned to a graduate transfer at quarterback after his recruit, a redshirt freshman, had started the previous five games. One player will be on campus next year and needs to keep getting reps. The other won’t.

All that is not to say that there were no bright spots on Saturday. Michael Carter continues to break out a running back; he had 157 rushing yards and two scores. And Tomon Fox displayed his speed at defensive end with three tackles, two of them solo sacks, and a forced fumble.

“Another young guy that I’m excited about,” Fedora said of Fox. “We’ve got some young guys on this football team that are making plays, and I’m excited about Tomon. You saw what he can do, glimpses of what he can do, and flashes, and we’ve got a bunch of young guys that have the ability and are doing things and are working hard, and that’s what’s so hard for me. I haven’t been able to help them get over the hump yet.”

Here’s hoping he can keep getting them to Chapel Hill.