Forward Focus

GREENVILLE, N.C. – In a cramped concrete hallway underneath the north bleachers at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Larry Fedora answered questions about the direction of his program following his team’s 70-41 dismantling while fireworks exploded in the sky overhead.

As reporters focused on what had just happened on the field outside, the more pressing questions deal with how the Tar Heels move forward following the worst defensive performance in school history.

The statistics are worth repeating if only because of their absurdity. UNC allowed a school-record 789 yards of total offense. To put that in perspective, ECU’s total through three quarters (613) would rank sixth-most all-time against the Tar Heels.

ECU’s 70 points are also the most-ever by a UNC opponent, topping the previous record by an extra point (Louisville scored 69 in ‘05).

It’s not as though UNC’s offense was much better. The Tar Heels matched ECU’s efficiency through the first 18 minutes before stalling on four straight possessions that ended with a trio of punts and a pick-six.

”We were outcoached, out played, everything,” Fedora said. “I’ll take full responsibility for it.”

Fedora’s future is undoubtedly safe, despite a portion of the fan base hoping otherwise. He’s 28 games into a seven-year contract and is just now seeing the end of NCAA sanctions on the horizon for misconduct that occurred on the previous staff’s watch.

That didn’t stop the questions being asked about reevaluating his scheme and the effectiveness of associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning. Fedora, for his part, held himself accountable.

“I’ve got to do a better job,” Fedora said. “I’ve got to do a better job with the staff, I’ve got to do a better job with the players. We start at the top and work our way down.”

Beyond the disaster that was Saturday night, however, is the season ahead. Four of UNC’s next six games are on the road, including trips to No. 22 Clemson, No. 9 Notre Dame and Miami.

“You’ve got to put it behind you as quick as you can, because we’ve got another one coming up,” Fedora said. “We’ve got to learn something from this because we’ve got to go to Clemson. We’ve got to get ourselves turned around and going the right way.”

Fedora has proven his ability to rally a team against harsh adversity. UNC lost five of its first six games last season before closing with six wins in its final seven contests.

The severity of this wound, however, was evident in the moments following the loss. Senior defensive tackle Ethan Farmer shed tears in the locker room. An angry Tim Scott provide short two- and three-word answers to reporters, while Marquise Williams got emotional talking to the team about turning its play around for the seniors.

There was also T.J. Thorpe, who played in his first game of the season, although he was a vocal leader in UNC’s second-half comebacks against Liberty and San Diego State.

The junior wide receiver talked about edges fraying far too early in the season. Instead of the entire roster rallying together at the start of the fourth quarter, as is custom, some were walking away. Others were pointing fingers at their teammates.

“We saw guys give up; point blank, period,” Thorpe said. “And that can’t happen.”

The cliché of it all is that Saturday’s loss is just one game, and a nonconference loss at that. The Tar Heels have yet to lose in the wide-open ACC Coastal Division, which is this team’s ultimate goal.

It’s up to Fedora and his coaching staff to remind the players of that fact.

“You hope that their spirit isn’t broken, that’s what you need to figure out," the third-year UNC head coach said. "That’ll be our test to find out who we really are, and that’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about physically, I’m talking about mentally, and that’s the question.”

There are schematic elements that must be addressed and personnel changes that must be considered, but for UNC to be a Coastal contender -- or merely a contender in any game the rest of the way -- Fedora has to have everyone on board and headed in the same direction.

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