"Smart, Fast and Physical" is all but tattooed on every North Carolina football player, but on Saturday, in a 34-17 loss to Virginia Tech, coach Larry Fedora's mantra was nowhere to be found.
It was the opposite of how the Tar Heels (2-3, 0-2 ACC) came out of the gate in a 34-17 loss to Virginia Tech. “We’re starting off too slow on offense right now,” said quarterback Marquise Williams, who was 17-for-33 and threw for 187 yards and one touchdown. “I feel like we didn’t start so smart and we didn’t start so fast this weekend.”
After Williams lost a fumble on the first play from scrimmage, the Hokies (4-2, 1-1 ACC) walked into the endzone and took the lead just 44 seconds into the game.
Still, North Carolina showed some fight on the second drive of the day, marching the ball 64 yards on nine plays, yet settling for a field goal. The Tar Heels had four first downs on that drive.
They had one more the rest of the half.
“I’d love to tell you that Virginia Tech has a great defense and did something spectacular,” Fedora said. “But whatever we could do wrong, whatever could go wrong for us offensively went wrong the entire first half from the first play.”
But it wasn’t just that things mysteriously went wrong. UNC put itself in position for problems.
After Williams captained his team downfield on UNC’s only scoring drive of the first half, after he fell into a rhythm and after the offense had found a tempo, inexplicably, Mitch Trubisky found himself under center.
Three plays later, with that rhythm sufficiently stifled, the Tar Heels punted the ball back to Virginia Tech.
Then, with just over 90 seconds left in the half, Trubsiky trotted out to the huddle again. On his third pass of the drive, he connected with Kendall Fuller for a 47-yard touchdown. One problem — Fuller plays for Virginia Tech.
The subsequent 21-point halftime deficit was the largest North Carolina has faced all season, which includes a 70-41 blowout to ECU and a 50-35 loss at Clemson.
Fedora said his decision to throw Trubsiky — who has three interceptions and two touchdowns this season — into the mixup was an ill-fated attempt to find inspiration somewhere.
“There was nothing that was going good in that first half. Nothing,” Fedora said. “As a coach, you start searching for a spark. “We just never got that going in the first half.”
The defense — which has been reminiscent of a turnstile in the past three games — was the surprising bright spot in the dismal performance Saturday.
“We put them in some bad situations,” Fedora said, referring to three of VT’s drives starting inside the UNC 35-yard line. “But they battled pretty hard in that second half.“
After a field goal with 1:44 left in the first half, the Tar Heels held the Hokie offense scoreless for 25 minutes and 16 seconds. But it was all for naught, as UNC’s offense was in the middle of a 43 minute and 19 second scoring drought of its own.
After dropping their last three games by an average margin of just over 20 points, it would be easy for UNC players to be dejected, especially considering they haven’t even reached the meat of their schedule, which will arrive Oct. 11 at No. 9 Notre Dame.
But Fedora said that’s not the case.
“There’s no look of despair in their eyes,” he said. “They’re frustrated and they’re disappointed – believe me they’re more disappointed than anybody that’s associated with the program. Those guys want to win.
"We’re just not getting it done right now.”
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