CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 24 North Carolina remains in contention for the ACC Coastal Division crown, tied with Virginia Tech in its conference record at 5-2. With both programs coughing up losses in games they were heavily favored to win last week, little has changed in the divisional race, save for one less game to be played.
A UNC win over N.C. State next weekend, paired with a Virginia win over Virginia Tech, sends the Tar Heels back to the ACC Championship Game. What has changed is UNC’s approach to its goals.
No longer are the Tar Heels (7-3, 5-2 ACC) riding the high of a three-game winning streak while playing its best. No longer are the Tar Heels openly cheering for Virginia Tech’s opponents to provide help. No longer are the Tar Heels harping on postgame celebration plans that include spray paint cans days before kickoff.
The confidence - or swagger, if you will – that swelled out of the Kenan Football Center in recent weeks has been deflated. What’s left is a return to an old standby that Larry Fedora first introduced after Zero Dark Thursday in 2013. After faltering late against Miami in a Thursday night game that year to fall to 1-5, Fedora wiped clean the team’s list of goals and replaced it with just one: go 1-0 each week.
Just two weeks ago, Fedora told reporters all of his team’s goals remained intact. Win the state championship. Win the Coastal Division. Win the ACC Championship. Win the final game. All but the state championship remain in play, although the list of goals has once again been reworked.
“The goal is just being 1-0 and winning our last game,” safety Donnie Miles said on Monday. “So just being 1-0 from this week on, and whatever our last game is, just win that last game.”
Fedora dismissed a reporter’s question asking if Virginia Tech’s loss to Georgia Tech had reenergized his players.
“I have no idea, because all we’ve talked about is The Citadel,” Fedora said. “That’s all we’re going to be focused on. That’s all we control. That’s all we’re going to worry about, is just being 1-0 this week.”
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky at least entertained the same question, although he quickly followed his head coach’s lead.
“There’s still a chance, there’s still hope,” Trubisky said. “We have other things to play for besides a chance for the ACC Championship. At this point we’re focused on being 1-0, but it is comforting to know there’s still an opportunity to get that chance. A couple more things have to fall into place, but we’ve got to take care of business. We didn’t take care of business when we had the chance.”
The Coastal Division was there for UNC’s taking, and a bevy of mistakes led to Duke earning its first ACC win of the season at Wallace Wade Stadium on Thursday. An upset of that magnitude has a way of installing blinders and removing the periphery from view. That’s why the Tar Heels refused to celebrate the Hokies’ loss despite the opening it presented.
“I try to look at us,” Miles said. “We didn’t do our part. We lost this week, too. I’m not going to be relieved because another team lost. We lost, too.”
If history’s any indication, the 1-0 approach has a proven track record. UNC won five games in a row and six of its last seven following Zero Dark Thursday in 2013.
Additional Fedora Quotes
Your team was up 14-0 and appeared to be rolling early against Duke. What changed?
“When I looked at those first couple of series, we still made mistakes. We overcame them, but we made mistakes. Uncharacteristic mistakes. Mistakes on just base things. We did the same thing throughout the entire game, and we weren’t able to overcome them after that. And there may have been a sense by some of our guys that, ‘wow, we went down and scored twice, this is real easy and this is the way it’s going to be all game.’ We didn’t have the same intensity the rest of the way.”
When you go back through the game film, do you make a list of things the staff maybe could have done differently, such as Elijah Hood needing to get more touches?
“I take a lot of notes from the games on things that happen in the games. I don’t do a whole lot of second-guessing on what plays are called. It’s more about, why didn’t we execute what was called? We have capable people, whether Elijah’s carrying it or T.J’s carrying it. We just didn’t execute. There were too many very basic things that we didn’t do throughout that game, which kept us from being efficient throughout the game. We ran the ball efficiently. We really did. But we just didn’t make plays to put the ball in the end zone, and you have to do that.”
What advantages does your program get out of playing a nonconference game this late in the season?
“The scheduling and everything goes back to whether we were going to go to eight conference games or nine conference games, Notre Dame was coming in, and all of a sudden, now you’ve got some holes in there. So you’ve got to play games. It is what it is. We’ve known all season that this was going to happen, that we were going to play them late in the year. They’re a really good football team.”
Do you prefer a nonconference game late in the year before your rivalry game?
“I’m okay with doing it this way. I don’t have a problem with it. I really don’t. But I’ve done it the other way, too, where we’ve had them all at the beginning of the year. There’s positives and negatives to both, so I don’t know if I feel one way or the other, honestly. I just look at the schedule and we put together a plan for whatever it is because whether you like it or not, you’re going to play it.”