Late in the fourth quarter of the North Carolina football team’s 35-25 loss to Florida State, the rings from the Bell Tower on third down were much more reminiscent of a death knell.
With the Seminoles coming into Saturday with a 1-4 record, this matchup was the perfect opportunity for the Tar Heels to string together a pair of wins and get their 2021 campaign back on track. Instead, UNC was handed their first home loss of the season and struck back down to a .500 winning percentage.
It was a gut punch to a team that now has three losses in games that it was heavily favored to win.
“We got to get better as a program,” head coach Mack Brown said. “Sometimes we look so good and it's so exciting for the future. And then sometimes we're so disappointing.”
Now, having reached the halfway point of the season, UNC must grapple with the question of what it has left to play for. The team that was once the darling of the preseason may now have to fight tooth and nail to reach the bowl-eligible mark of six wins.
“My expectation is to win every game. So three times we’ve met it, and three times we haven’t.” Brown said. “The national media expectation, the expectations for us to be a top-ten team, were wrong.”
The reasons for this loss didn’t seem to correlate with the reasons for UNC’s previous two defeats. After the game, junior quarterback Sam Howell praised the play-calling from offensive coordinator Phil Longo and the performance of the offensive line, which throughout the season has struggled with allowing sacks.
“I thought (the offensive line) did a really good job up front, and we were able to get some calls to get the ball out a little quicker as well,” Howell said.
UNC produced 432 yards of offense, yet failed to find the end zone in key situations. Penalties, dropped passes and an interception in the end zone crushed the offense’s momentum.
The defense seemed to take a step back after holding Duke to just seven points last week. Seminole quarterback Jordan Travis ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns, and he was nearly perfect as a passer with three touchdowns on just 13 attempts.
Senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel pointed to lack of communication and players being out of position as key issues.
“Being able to play one week so good, so sound and be able to communicate so well, and then to go to the next week and not be able to communicate as well — I mean it’s extremely frustrating,” Gemmel said.
Gemmel said he called a meeting for the defense after tomorrow’s lift session, so that they can discuss what went wrong in this game.
The Tar Heels will need to identify their issues and fix them quickly if they hope to salvage the season.
After next weekend’s home matchup against Miami, UNC will still have to face a gauntlet of ranked opponents with No. 14 Notre Dame in South Bend, No. 19 Wake Forest at home and No. 23 N.C. State in Raleigh to cap the regular season.
All of the preseason goals and expectations have been thrown out the window. For Howell, these next six games are a chance for him and his teammates to play for themselves and for the love of the game.
"You know, it's disappointing for us, disappointing for our fans, just with expectations coming into this year," Howell said. "But we love football, we love each other and we're gonna go out there and fight and try to win every single game that we have left on our schedule.”
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