CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The opportunity was large, and that made the pain of failure even greater.
North Carolina concluded its regular season in disappointing fashion Friday, losing to rival N.C. State 28-21 at Kenan Stadium.
The Tar Heels had planned to spend Saturday monitoring Virginia’s game at Virginia Tech, hoping that the Cavaliers could pull the upset to send UNC back to the ACC championship game. That won’t happen now. The Tar Heels also planned to send their 16 seniors out with a victory in their final home game. That didn’t happen, either.
“I hate it for this football team but especially for these seniors because of what they mean to this program and what they’ve done for the culture at Carolina,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “I can’t say enough about what these guys have done. If you remember back when they were coming out of high school, it was pretty dark around this place, but they believed and came in here and built something.”
The seniors helped spearhead an upward trajectory as UNC’s program battled scholarship reductions that greeted Fedora upon his arrival. The Tar Heels went 7-6 in 2013 and 6-7 in 2014 before breaking through with an 11-3 record and a Coastal Division crown last season. More of the same was expected this year, and UNC stayed in the race for first place until the final weekend of the season.
But, in the end, the Tar Heels simply didn’t play well enough to earn another ACC championship game berth. The mistakes against N.C. State were plentiful on both sides of the ball: penalties and dropped passes on offense, missed tackles and dropped coverages on defense.
“I thought we were ready to go,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “I thought we were pretty focused. We just didn’t make some plays that we usually make.”
The result was a loss in a must-win game, leaving the Tar Heels at 8-4. Eight wins in the regular season is not an every-year occurrence at UNC. It has happened five times in the past nine seasons, but it didn’t happen at all in the 10 seasons prior. So, reaching that figure is an achievement of sorts.
But eight wasn’t enough for this group, which spoke all offseason about taking one more step than in 2015 and winning the ACC championship.
“I think that just comes with the new standard that we established here,” defensive tackle Nazair Jones said. “We finished the regular season winning eight games. To us, that’s completely horrible. But to some teams, that’s a great season, and people get promotions and all these different kind of things.”
The Tar Heels move forward to their bowl game with the idea that they didn’t accomplish everything they could have or should have this season. In reality, their goals were lofty enough that they required excellent health on offense and significant improvement on defense. Neither of those things happened to the degree that was required. Injuries to wide receiver Mack Hollins and guard Caleb Peterson sapped some power from the offense, which was heavily relied upon to carry the team, and the defense struggled down the stretch just as it did a year ago.
UNC allowed 492 yards and 6.4 yards per play to the Wolfpack, failing to adequately stop the run or the pass. The Tar Heels closed the regular season having allowed an average of 462 yards, including 291 rushing yards (4.89 yards per carry), in their final four games.
After showing improvement in the middle of the season in wins over Miami and Virginia, UNC’s defense couldn’t maintain its momentum.
“I really don’t have an answer for you,” Jones said of the slippage. “I’m trying to figure it out, too.”
UNC’s wild run through the regular season was just as difficult to decipher. A group that won at Florida State and at Miami — becoming just the second team to accomplish that feat in the same season — lost in November to Duke and N.C. State teams that entered those games with losing records. The Tar Heels dropped games to the Blue Devils and Wolfpack in the same season for the first time since 2003, a 2-10 season.
“The two in-state games, it’s just really disappointing that we lost those games,” linebacker Andre Smith said. “Eight wins, going to a bowl, we’ve set a new standard at Carolina. It’s better than two or three years ago when six wins and getting to a bowl game was a big thing. Getting eight wins, it’s OK. But it’s not really something we’re proud of or we celebrate. It’s very disappointing.”
That’s why players were so emotional afterward. Jones said nothing in the postgame locker room because he was too busy crying. Senior wide receiver Ryan Switzer, who had 13 catches for 171 yards and set the school record for receptions in a season, choked back tears on numerous occasions as he graciously met with reporters after the game.
It was his last chance to play at Kenan Stadium — and his team’s last chance to pursue its preseason goals.
“Forever for these seniors, every time they think about this game, it’s going to hurt them,” Fedora said.
“They have changed the culture here at Carolina; they have.”