Battening Down the Hatches

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina fell short of becoming bowl eligible at Virginia on Saturday, and now must enter the home stretch of its schedule with questions surrounding the defense's ability to finish games, as well as having lost another vital part of an already struggling offense.

The Tar Heels posted a surprising 5-1 record through the first half of the season, earning distinction as the 18th-ranked team in the country heading into last Saturday's contest in Charlottesville. But North Carolina failed to hold on to a fourth-quarter lead for the second time this season, not long after the Tar Heels avoided last-minute collapses to Miami and Notre Dame by forcing timely turnovers as their opponents marched down the field.

UNC outplayed Virginia Tech for three quarters, and dominated Virginia for nearly 58 minutes, but in the end, those partial showings were not enough to prevail.

"How do you play the fourth quarter?" head coach Butch Davis said during Monday's press conference. "How do you finish those last 6-7-8 minutes of the game? It's one of those things that you've got to learn. I know that some of the things that probably didn't help us on Saturday are things that we'll probably do better in the future."

But while applying the finishing touches has been the most pressing issue, it's definitely not the only one. A stellar turnover margin mark (+1.14 ranks 9th nationally) has hidden difficulties on both sides of the ball for North Carolina – UNC ranks 59th in total defense (353.7 yards per game) and 87th in total offense (326.4 ypg).

"One of the things that we talked about as a staff [on Sunday] was looking at the ways that we can be more efficient, looking at the ways we can do a better job of protecting the football on offense, being smart and wise, [and] going back to the things that had allowed us to win the games that we won," Davis said.

After such a heartbreaking collapse on Saturday, it would be easy to understand if the Tar Heels were still feeling the effects of the loss, but on Monday, the players were saying the right things as they turn their attention to No. 23 Boston College.

"The season is full of ebbs and flows and full of ups and downs…," defensive end E.J. Wilson said. "It's hard at first, but I've been here for a while and I've definitely experienced some losses, so I know not to get my head down too far because there's going to be a better day."

And despite only being a red-shirt sophomore, running back Shaun Draughn reached into the coachspeak archives to relay his thoughts on moving forward.

"It's not looking in the past, and it's not looking forward," Draughn said. "It's just taking it one game at a time."

That mentality is a requirement for these Tar Heels, particularly with their upcoming schedule. While preseason prognosticators pointed to the first six games as being the most challenging for North Carolina, it's beginning to look as though the final stretch wasn't getting enough respect during the summer.

Boston College (5-1, 2-1 ACC) and Georgia Tech (6-1, 3-1 ACC) are next up for the Tar Heels, followed by a schizophrenic Maryland squad (5-2, 2-1 ACC) that is bad enough to lose to Middle Tennessee State, 24-14, but good enough to dismantle arguably the ACC's best team in Wake Forest, 26-0.

North Carolina will then finish its season with contests against in-state rivals N.C. State and Duke, and while both teams are expected to secure last-place finishes in their respective divisions, rivalries can never be labeled as assured victories.

The Tar Heels have benefited in conference play by playing three of the worst offensive teams in the country – Miami (102nd nationally), Virginia (104th) and Virginia Tech (110th) reside in the bottom-third of the ACC – despite having won only one of those contests. Those statistics will change for the worse over the next three ball games, however, as Boston College (366.2 ypg), Georgia Tech (365.3 ypg) and Maryland (372 ypg) all reside in the top-third of the league in total offense.

It doesn't help that Davis announced that starting fullback Anthony Elzy suffered a fractured scapula against Virginia, adding another player to a list of injured offensive starters that include quarterback T.J. Yates, tight end Zack Pianalto and wide receiver Brandon Tate. The Tar Heels have relied on solid defense and special teams play to insulate an offense that's primary goal is to be efficient, but with stronger offensive opponents on the horizon, UNC is going to have to show that it can move the ball down the field and put points on the scoreboard.

"It's difficult to fill those holes," quarterback Cam Sexton said. "But people have to step up. That's how it works. People get hurt. Those aren't valid excuses. It's people's responsibility to get ready, and I think they'll do it."

North Carolina remains on track to make its first postseason appearance since 2004, but with Saturday's collapse in Charlottesville, the road to bowl eligibility just got that much more difficult.

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