There are too many candidates for the lead storyline here. The number of penalties committed by the Tar Heels is a good place to start. Ten penalties for 87 yards. While South Florida may well have won this game without being aided and abetted by Tar Heel mistakes, the penalties help highlight two qualities that the 2006 teams has been missing since game one – confidence and concentration.
The statistics tell a bleak story in nearly every facet of the game. The Tar Heels were out-gained on offense 417 yards to 285. Cam Sexton was only 9-of-26 for 117 yards, tossed two costly interceptions, and was sacked five times. The UNC defense was – well, defenseless in the red zone. South Florida scored on all five of their red zone chances. A more detailed analysis of the game seems unnecessary as it follows a too familiar script.
But it is the penalties that highlight the futility that the players must be feeling. "We were moving the ball, and you penalize yourself," UNC quarterback Cam Sexton said following the game, "Psychologically, it brings you back. You find yourself driving, maybe we're down and you've got to start over again."
"Lack of focus really hurt us this first half of the season," senior Larry Edwards said in the locker room following the game, "I feel like we haven't been on the same page offensively, defensively in one game yet." Through six games, the lack of focus Edwards alludes to has been obvious to observers, but nearly impossible to explain.
"You keep playing every week," an obviously down Jesse Holley said following the game, "That's all you can do. You keep playing every week, and you see what happens. You come in every week and you see what happens. Period."
The comments of several players were more than just typical expressions of disappointment after a tough loss – their comments paint of picture of a team that is mystified by the results they see on the field and who are running out of explanations. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that the problems this team faces are intractable and reach beyond quick fixes or simple adjustments.
"At this level, there are opportunities and we've got to maximize them and until we do that we are always on that edge, teetering on that edge and that's when we fall and we can't recover," head coach John Bunting said following the game. Halfway through the 2006 season, with so many problems in so many different facets of the game, recovery at any level seems like wishful thinking. It obviously felt that way to the number of fans who booed the team off the field at the end of the game.
Which is perhaps why this game had such an end-of-an-era feel to it.
What Went Right
Junior kicker Connor Barth had a great day, and came within a foot or two of being amazing. Barth connected on two field goals - one a personal-best kick of 52-yards - and executed a fake field goal, running for 21-yards and a first down. And had he kicked the ball an extra foot on an on-side attempt, he would have been in position to recover it in the fourth quarter.
Senor linebacker Larry Edwards, playing with a broken left collarbone, had nine tackles for the Tar Heels in what is almost certainly his final game as a Tar Heel. It was a gutsy performance and a tough way to end his career at North Carolina. Edwards is a credit to the North Carolina football team.
The Tar Heels travel to Charlottesville on Thursday night to face a Virginia Cavalier squad (2-5, 1-2) reeling from a season-gone-wrong of their own. The Cavs' latest defeat came on Saturday after leading Maryland, 20-0, at the end of the first half. Both teams will be trying to avoid their sixth defeat of the season.
Thursday night's game will mark the 25th anniversary of the last North Carolina win in Charlottesville. Ironically, the Tar Heels will face perhaps the most vulnerable Cavs team in the years since that 17-14 Tar Heel win in 1981. The Tar Heels seem ill-equipped to exploit that vulnerability. If they can, it will be as difficult to explain as the first six games of the 2006 season.