It had been years since the North Carolina football team was in the position where it found itself on Saturday night against Florida State – being hunted instead of hunters.
But before the Tar Heels could get a sense of their new reality, the scoreboard at Doak Campbell Stadium read 31-7 at halftime. Although quarterback Sam Howell threw for 374 yards — most of which came in the second half — and the defense did not allow another score, the hole was too big to overcome.
Head coach Mack Brown saw early signs of trouble last week when, at times, he believed the unit practiced too casually. He likened the situation to how the team prepared for Wake Forest last season after opening the year with consecutive victories.
“We tell our guys that you win or lose games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and we lost this game on Wednesday,” Brown said at a Monday morning press conference.
After soaring to No. 5 in last week’s AP poll, Brown was worried about the team losing its focus and becoming too complacent with where it stood. He emphasized that with social media, it is easy for players to notice all of the praise they receive, which can make it challenging for coaches to motivate the group.
“I always talk to the offensive guys about being one week better regardless of who we play or what’s at stake in the ball game,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said.
Despite the loss, Brown reemphasized that the program has made strides since he returned to Chapel Hill last fall, describing it as “ahead of schedule." There were positives in the second half of the loss, like the defense that didn't allow the Seminoles to extend the lead.
"I told the defense yesterday, I don’t know how many teams I’ve coached that would be down 31-7 and play as bad as we did in the first half that would come back and battle like we battled,” defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said.
One step Brown wants the team to take is seizing command during critical moments of games. Although many critical eyes will point to the three dropped passes on the final drive, UNC's head coach noted a squandered opportunity early in the fourth quarter, when the offense failed to score after a Trey Morrison interception gave the team great field position while trailing by 10.
For a team that saw all six of its losses come by a single score last season, Brown wants to challenge this group to leave nothing on the table.
“We’ve got to have the confidence to know that we’re going to win the game,” he said. “A great team scores (after Morrison's interception). We get points, go up, and the momentum shifts and we take over the fourth quarter where we’ve been so dominant.”
UNC will have little time to dwell on the loss, as the Tar Heels will play four consecutive rivalry games, beginning Oct. 24 against N.C. State in Kenan Stadium. Brown believes these four emotional bouts will test the team’s character and ultimately indicate what it is capable of.
“It will be really interesting to see if me, our coaches, and players can get everybody up at the height of their emotions for four straight weeks,” he said. “Those four teams are going to play hard against us, so we’ve got to see if we’re ready with our program to play hard against them.”
The Tar Heels – who now rank No. 14 – still have plenty of goals that remain intact. After the upcoming four-game stretch, they will square off against fellow ACC contenders Notre Dame and Miami in consecutive weeks. Brown hopes the lessons learned from the Florida State loss can help the team overcome these obstacles, carefully describing his insistence in a short statement.
“We’ve got to make sure that we do not let one game beat us twice,” Brown said.
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