The most glaring mistakes have come on the defensive end. On Clemson’s second play from scrimmage in its 50-35 win over UNC on Saturday, two Tiger wide receivers were running free down the right sideline, prompting Fedora to tell reporters after the game that they could have pitched the ball back and forth to each other.
“Believe it or not, we don’t have defensive schemes where you turn a guy loose,” Fedora said on Monday. ”We don’t have those. It may look like it, but we don’t have that.”
Not one defensive back, but two, missed their assignment on that 74-yard scoring play. Fedora referred to that miscue, along with a handful of other blown coverages, as basic mental mistakes.
It would be inaccurate, however, to blame the defense for errors and give the other two phases a pass. Mistakes were rampant in Death Valley and have been through the first four games of the season.
On Saturday, UNC committed 15 penalties – one shy of the school record – for 130 yards. On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Marquise Williams was responsible for an ill-advised safety and the wide receiver corps alone missed 20 assignments, according to wide receiver T.J. Thorpe.
“You had situations in the game where we have receivers blocking on pass plays,” Thorpe said. “We want to get on Marquise about incompletions or starting slow, but that’s part of the problem. There’s nobody to throw it to if they’re blocking. And so little things like that, we’ve just got to make sure we correct and make sure they don’t happen because against good teams like Clemson, those mistakes can get you beat.”
Various miscues, in all three phases, have saddled North Carolina with a two-game losing streak after opening the season in the national polls.
“If we go out and we play hard and we take care of our job, then we’ve got a chance,” Fedora said. “If we don’t, if we continue to make the mistakes that we’re making mentally, then it will be hard. We’ve got to get those things cut out.”
Fedora didn’t blame his team’s youth and inexperience, although Thorpe pointed in that general direction, including his own personal experiences, to explain the miscues.
The Durham, N.C. product said in the past he’s blamed others for his mistakes. He told the story of complaining about being open on a particular play, only to find out later that he ran the wrong depth, forcing the quarterback to look elsewhere.
“Taking an initiative to do the small things and do what you’re coached to do is more of a maturity thing,” Thorpe said. “As you grow as a player and really as a person, you start to be critical of yourself, take the initiative to do the things that you’re coached to do.”
The results are obvious on the field, according to Thorpe. When all 11 offensive players do their job, UNC lights up the scoreboard. When assignments are missed, drives stall out, which is what happened when UNC punted on its first five possessions at Clemson.
“Until then, we’re going to have these roller coaster-style games where one quarter we’re hot and the next quarter we’re cold,” Thorpe said. “I think that’s on both sides of the ball. On the defensive side, we see the same thing.”
The difficulty lies in the ability, or lack thereof, to shelve the mental errors and move on to the next play.
“You want to say just shake it off and it will be okay,” Thorpe said, “but guys are beat up because they may have given up a touchdown or they may have missed a block that would have sprung a touchdown or dropped a ball. But I feel like that’s where maturity needs to kick in.”
UNC addresses its game day miscues on Sunday afternoon in a period labeled "Corrections." After discussing a specific error in film review – penalties, loafs, missed assignments – the coaching staff recreates the play on the practice field and often reps it several times.
While the tempo is typically similar to Friday’s walk-through, a fired-up Fedora sped things up this week, according to Thorpe.
After practice on Sunday, the players come together for the “Tar Heel circle,” an event not nearly as fun as it may sound.
Fedora explained the circle during a coaching clinic speech when he was at Southern Miss in 2009:
“The coach is in the middle. He calls out a player’s name. The player sprints his butt to the middle of the circle. The coach tells him how many loafs he had in the game. If he had three loafs, he yells his name and announces, ‘My name is John Smith and I let the team down three times.’ The whole team does three up-downs. The players sprints back to his position and the next player’s name is called.”
Thorpe said that some players get mad, while others get embarrassed, as teammates cheer and heckle accordingly. Sometimes the circle is not called if UNC plays a clean game; other times the up-down count exceeds 100.
“You can imagine after the ECU game it was probably pretty bad,” Thorpe said.
All teams commit multiple mistakes each game. It’s the teams that limit those errors, however, that put themselves in better position to win close contests, such as UNC’s matchup with Virginia Tech on Saturday.
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