Who could have known that the final injury report of the 2017 Carolina football season would feature 17 players ruled out for the season and another three out for the game? Who could have known back on September 2 that of the 22 starters who took the field against Cal in game one, only 10 would start against NC State in game twelve? Who could have known?
Such was the hand that Carolina football was dealt in 2017. The Tar Heels had already lost so much, both on offense and defense, to graduation and the NFL Draft. This season was always going to be a process of finding the next playmakers at quarterback, at tailback, at receiver and on the defensive line. That was even before the unprecedented rash of injuries.
It started off with that close loss to Cal, then that close loss to Louisville. Then the win at Old Dominion, but then a close loss to Duke, a blowout out Georgia Tech, a close loss to Virginia and a blowout at Virginia Tech. But close loss or blowout, it goes down as an ‘L’ either way.
And so going into the last week of October, the record was 1-7. A bowl game was out of the picture, let alone a division championship.
A late fumble cost them a win over then-undefeated Miami, the eventual division champion. Then, a win at Pitt on a Thursday night and rout of Western Carolina before the finale in Raleigh against NC State.
Saturday’s game was exemplary of those close losses that defined the first two-thirds of the season: hang in early, even lead, then get worn out and lose. The Tar Heel defense played well enough to win on Saturday, just as they did so many times in 2017. But they were on the field for more than 13 minutes more than the offense; Carolina had a single drive of longer than 2:17 in the second half, and four that were shorter than 90 seconds.
It was no surprise, then, when NC State’s Nyheim Hines burst through the Tar Heel defense twice on consecutive one-play drives for touchdowns of 54 and 48 yards, respectively. The Tar Heel defense could hardly catch their breath; that kind of time-of-possession disparity would affect the healthiest teams, let alone one missing Andre Smith and Cayson Collins and Cole Holcomb and Donnie Miles and Corey Bell, Jr. They were gassed. Of course they were.
The Tar Heel defense and coaching staff wouldn’t use that as an excuse, of course. “I will tell you this,” Larry Fedora said after Carolina’s 21-33 loss. “The 11 guys that we put out on the field, they fought and gave everything they had. We had some guys out there that weren’t playing in the positions that they shoudlbe playing, but they did what they had to do to try to help this team win and gave everything they had.”
That they did, and they did it all season. They could have used injuries as an excuse, could have pointed to the lack of a returning starter at quarterback or running back or wide receiver, could have used any number of actual facts to explain the team’s final record of 3-9. But they didn’t. They came to play each and every day, trusting their coaches and one another and fighting to the last.
“It says a lot about each and every one’s character on the team,” safety J.K. Britt said. “None of these guys ever gave up. We came to practice, we put on our hard hat, we went to work, and it’s going to carry over to next year. We’re going to work hard. We’re going to be better for it, and we’re going to be a better team.”
There are no moral victories in football. At the end of the game, when the opposing coaches and players are shaking hands, there are winners and there are losers (most of the time; let’s not talk about ties). But there are reasons to hold one’s head up even if the scoreboard suggests one might do otherwise. And the fact that Carolina led most of a game in which they were a 16.5-point underdog is one of those reasons. The fact that they came in with nothing to play for beyond Saturday and yet fought like hell, that’s another one of those reasons. The result, really, is secondary. They were either going to finish 4-8 with no bowl game or 3-9 with no bowl game. And they fought anyway.
Carolina still has questions to answer. There is the matter of quarterback, of who steps in at linebacker, of who rises to positions of leadership in the defensive secondary. But 2017 allowed several contenders the opportunity to hit the field in the fall, and to return in the spring with experience. That’s not nothing, either.
”We’ve got some new pieces coming in, we’ve got gusy returning . . . “ said Michael Carter, one of the answers at running back, “so we’re going to have to step up and be leaders now. We’re losing a lot of leadership, so that can probably be one of the biggest things moving forward to next season.”
It will be; Carolina loses Bentley Spain on offense and Dajaun Drennon and Cayson Collins, M.J. Stewart and Donnie Miles on defense. But this year’s senior class exemplified the one quality that you want to see in the leaders to follow: they wouldn’t let the team quit, as a result, the Tar Heels showed up to work.
And they fought. They fought.
Photo by Smith Hardy.