RALEIGH – The North Carolina football team in a 33-21 loss to rival N.C. State on Saturday showed why it finished with its worst record since 2006, but was also a unit that didn’t just roll over.
With his preseason goals unachievable a little over halfway through the season, head coach Larry Fedora sold his players on the idea of playing for pride. He communicated the same ahead of this weekend's game, which would be the final act of a season marred by injury and misfortune.
“We know every time we step on the field it’s a one-on-one battle, and we want to win our one-on-one battle because another man’s saying that he can beat you,” safety J.K. Britt said. “And you just have to have enough pride to not let it happen.”
The season-ending tilt with the Wolfpack offered UNC (3-9, 1-7 ACC), winners of its previous two games, a chance to end the year on the upswing. For a while, it looked like the Tar Heels could do just that.
Riding the arm of its third different starting quarterback of the season, and relying on the playmaking ability of a wide receiver who had three career catches entering 2017, UNC held a slender 14-12 lead late in the third quarter.
Defensively, the Tar Heels were managing to make do with a scheme that relied on six defensive backs because of injuries to three of its top linebackers.
Then, as Fedora put it, UNC “just ran out of gas.”
That’s one way to describe the one-minute, 39-second stretch from near the end of the third quarter to the start of the fourth that ultimately led to the Tar Heels’ ninth defeat of the season.
Unexpectedly absent over the past couple of weeks, UNC’s big-play woes on defense returned as N.C. State's Nyheim Hines scored on touchdown runs of 54 and 48 yards on back-to-back offensive plays midway through the second half.
In between the two scores was a Nathan Elliott interception, UNC’s first turnover since the Oct. 26 loss to Miami.
UNC cleaned its game up in its two consecutive victories heading into Saturday, but the same errors that plagued the Tar Heels for much of the season were what did Fedora’s team in against N.C. State.
“We hadn’t done that lately, but we gave up a couple catastrophic (plays),” Fedora said. “I don’t know if we had a chance to get the guy on the ground or not. I’d have to go back and see it.”
Elliott, who had three touchdowns and two interceptions on 21 of 45 passes for 277 yards, blamed himself after the loss, saying he had to play better.
UNC’s improved play down the stretch of the season coincided with Elliott starting, once redshirt first-year Chazz Surratt was injured early against Miami. But even Elliott struggled against the Wolfpack, taking sacks at inopportune times while misfiring on multiple occasions.
Now that it’s over, he said the season can be looked at in two different ways.
“Obviously it’s very frustrating to not be winning as many games as you want to win,” the redshirt sophomore said. “In another way, it gave a lot of other guys opportunities — a lot of younger guys were given forced reps, which I think is going to pay off in the end.”
There was some evidence of that Saturday. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams finished with a career-best 131 receiving yards on five catches, capping off a breakout year made possible by injuries to seniors Austin Proehl and Thomas Jackson. First-year running back Michael Carter and sophomore linebacker Jonathan Smith were featured prominently as well.
Even if those returning for UNC do make the most of this season, and are able to use it as a meaningful lesson, there is still much for Fedora and his staff to sort out.
UNC’s quarterback situation is anything but solidified; four of its five starting offensive lineman are not returning, and UNC’s defense will once again have to learn to play effectively as a group, something that’s been easier said than done in recent history.
“We’ll go back and evaluate everything – everything that we do in this program,” Fedora said. “We never stop doing that. We’ll try to tweak things to make things better. Hopefully we’re going to get a bunch of guys healed up, and then we’ll be ready to go.”
UNC’s worst season in over a decade is finally over. The process of making sure one like it doesn’t happen again is just beginning.