Avoiding a Letdown

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina responded to the intense negative criticism surrounding the program earlier in the season by reeling off four consecutive victories. Now with that winning streak over and their Coastal Division title hopes fading away, the Tar Heels must find a way – yet again – to overcome adversity.

North Carolina could have been the poster child for a program gone wrong. With the NCAA investigation looming over Chapel Hill, what was expected to be a top-20 squad lost its first two games as positive news was scarce around the Kenan Football Center.

But when no one else was willing to shine a non-scathing spotlight on UNC, the Tar Heels took it upon themselves to earn that respect with road victories at Rutgers and Virginia bookeneded around home wins over East Carolina and Clemson. Instead of falling apart, they stuck together, trusted the coaching staff and managed to work themselves back into the Coastal Division race and found themselves a victory over Miami away from returning to the top-25 rankings.

The feel-good story came to an end at Sun Life Stadium under the lights on Saturday night, however, as North Carolina had no answer for the Hurricanes in a 33-10 loss. Losing a game is one thing, but the added weight of falling two games in the loss column behind Virginia Tech with only four conference games remaining made the blow that much tougher to stomach.

Part of the problem was a burgeoning injury list. Eight Tar Heels didn't even make the trip to Miami due to injury, and linebacker Quan Sturdivant was held out due to a lingering hamstring issue. During the game, cornerback Mywan Jackson, safety Da'Norris Searcy, fullback Anthony Elzy and H-back Ryan Taylor all left the game with injuries and didn't return. Running back Johnny White also sat out the second half with an injury bug.

Add that list to the nine other Tar Heels currently sitting out due to their involvement in the ongoing NCAA investigation, and you arrive at 23 players that were not available by the end of the loss on Saturday.

As head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his weekly press conference on Monday, "you only have so many moves" that you can make in filling the gaps.

"It challenges your depth, and we're pretty challenged from a depth standpoint already," Davis said.

Now comes the issue of rebounding. This team grew stronger with each passing victory, brushing aside bad news seemingly each and every week. But with the positive momentum stopped dead in its tracks, the question is clear: Can this program pick itself off the mat one more time this season?

"This group of kids on this football team has been remarkably resilient all year long to deal with a lot of the things that they've had to deal with," Davis said. "They looked at the film [on Sunday] and we always ask them to be honest with yourself. Was that performance the very best that you could play? Areas where you didn't perform as well as you would have liked, let's go to work this week and try to improve and try to make it better."

While the fan base seemed to be deflated after what happened in South Florida, the players took a different approach.

"After the game on Saturday, everybody was angry and [ticked] off," Yates said. "I think that's going to lead to some good positive energy during the week. A lot of the guys on the team are going to be eager to get back on the field… I think we can turn it into a positive thing and use this Saturday to come back out and gain some momentum back."

In some respects, the loss may have refocused this group of Tar Heels after enjoying a month of victories maybe a little too much.

"I think we kind of got a reality check," safety Deunta Williams said. "Because of those four games and the way that we were winning, we were sweeping some of the mistakes under the rug and they got totally exposed last game, so guys have just got to get back to work."

It's beneficial that North Carolina gets a break from the ACC grind this weekend as FCS opponent William & Mary come to town, but James Madison's upset over Virginia Tech earlier this season stands as a clear reminder that every opponent must be respected. The goal this week is not to take it easy, but rather to get guys healthy and return to the level of play that delivered the four-game winning streak.

"All we care about right now is getting that bad taste out of our mouths," Williams said.

That process begins with the Tribe on Saturday before November brings a harsh dose of reality with contests against three of the ACC's top teams.

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