Lately there’s one word that comes to mind when describing a lead in a Tar Heel football game: tenuous. Slight, weak, insubstantial, flimsy. Tenuous. That’s how it feels, because lately Carolina football hasn’t shown us that they can sustain a lead, that they can be trusted to run the score up or run the clock out, to finish what they’ve started.
In their first three games against Power Five opponents this season, the Tar Heels led heading into the fourth quarter. Against Cal, Louisville and Duke, playing the final 15 minutes like they’d played the first 45 would have resulted in a win. And yet the Tar Heels lost all three games. Forgive us Tar Heel fans if we don’t find the program particularly trustworthy of late.
Carolina never got the chance to blow a fourth-quarter lead in their 33-10 loss against Notre Dame. The Tar Heels didn’t gain a first down on their first five series, didn’t score at all until there were fewer than two minutes left in the first half. And yet, they were more in the game than perhaps they should have been.
For another week, the Tar Heel defense showed up, forcing turnovers and punts, bending but not breaking, at least not early. So when they got a stop near midfield late in the half, the Tar Heel offense had the chance to run the clock and get into intermission, down a touchdown with the ball to start the third quarter.
And yet . . . tenuous. After punt returner M.J. Stewart waved for a fair catch but let the ball go over his head, and it was downed at the one, the Tar Heels needed to get out of the shadow of the Tar Pit. Chazz Surratt looked for Anthony Ratliff-Williams deep, as the two had connected two weeks ago against Duke, but the pass was not there. And then . . .
Just get it off the goal line. Line up under center and sneak it. Let the clock run. Get into the half unscathed. But they couldn’t do that. On second down at their own one, Surratt –in the shotgun– handed the ball to Jordon Brown, who was tackled in the end zone. You take the chance to connect with Ratliff-Williams, sure. That doesn’t work out, and you need to be conservative.
“What I wanted to do was get out of the half without any problems, and we were going to run a basic zone play, and we turned some guys loose and they hit us in the backfield,” Larry Fedora said after the game.
So a seven-point halftime deficit —within a score and an extra point— becomes a nine-point, two-possession deficit, just like that. It may be just two points, but the psychological impact is huge.
This year has been the perfect storm of injuries and inexperience. With what they lost from a year ago, the Tar Heels were always going to be inexperienced, but the injuries have dealt a painful blow. One shouldn’t see Austin Proehl in the Craige parking deck two and a half hours before the game, his arm in a sling. One shouldn’t see Andre Smith and Thomas Jackson on crutches on the fifth floor of Kenan Football Center immediately after the game. They should be on the field helping this team try to win. So the difficulties moving the football on offense and getting stops on defense are not hard to understand.
But even so, Fedora and his coaching staff have to do a better job of putting the team in position to make plays, if not win football games. With dual-threat quarterbacks Surratt and Brandon Harris, the Tar Heels opted to throw on fourth and short against both Cal and Louisville, with the game well within reach. Both times, the ball fluttered to the ground. Down 10 late against Duke, Fedora elected to go with the offense on 4th and 12 at the Blue Devil 15 rather than take the field goal and keep the game in doubt. Jordan Cunningham came up short of the marker, the ball turned over, and Duke ran the clock out.
That’s not to say that those plays would have gone any other way had the call been different. That’s not to say that the final result would have turned in the Tar Heels’ favor had the plays been made. And certainly Carolina football has been dealt a bad had in 2017. Still, it seems like Fedora is hesitant to play the good cards he is holding.
And so here we are. The season is half over, and the Tar Heels are 1-5, with games against Virginia, Virginia Tech, Miami, Pitt, Western Carolina and NC State to go. It’s going to be an uphill battle. Carolina needs five wins to reach a bowl. They need wins for respectability.
The Tar Heel football program can weather one bad season. They can chalk it up to the injuries and inexperience, get back to the drawing board and move forward. The experience that Surratt is gaining is invaluable. The young running backs will be even more productive behind a healthy offensive line. The secondary is promising. There’s hope for the future, sure.
But there’s also a worrisome trend. Carolina hasn’t beaten a Power Five team since November 5 of last year. They’re 0-4 at home this season. Carolina almost cracked the College Football Playoff two years ago, but the momentum of 2015 is impermanent. Young players have short memories, and no Tar Heel recruit has seen a Tar Heel win in Kenan Stadium in 2017.
In year six under Fedora, a 1-5 start is troubling. When defensive players start yelling at offensive players because one group can’t stay on the field and the other can’t get off of it, when rows empty at halftime and fans start gazing toward Late Night with Roy, folks stop putting their trust in a grand day out at Kenan Stadium. And recruits that once thought they’d play in Carolina blue suddenly begin looking elsewhere.
Carolina football has the resources to be good at football, and they can be, again. But right now, this . . . it all feels so tenuous.