Any number of factors contribute to a team losing a football game, so many that it’s axiomatic a head coach will eventually resort to studying film to explain or at least dissect what happened. That’s why explanations issued in a game’s immediate aftermath, while utterly human, can be a waste of time.
What matters, anyway, is defined by the simplest of acts, a truth so enduring it long ago passed into cliché. Strange things do happen, but most often if you block and tackle better than the other guys, you’re apt to win.
Fail to do those things well, or significantly less well than the other guy, and you look like North Carolina did this past Saturday in a 55-31 home thrashing at the hands of East Carolina, an in-state member of Conference USA.
“It was hard for me to find something positive out of that from the sideline,” said UNCcoach Larry Fedora. “I’m going to have to look at the film to find the positives in this game and to try to build on some things.”
Fedora, still wearing his dark blue field visor during his post-game press conference, bemoaned his team’s repetitious failings, among them committing personal fouls that at least twice were crucial in sustaining ECU drives. North Carolina was penalized nine times for 94 yards.
The Tar Heels, a preseason favorite to compete for first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division, have the worst record in the league (1-3). The only other ACC squad with a losing record at this point is Wake Forest at 2-3.
UNC already has a division loss at Georgia Tech. With upcoming games against formidable division rivals Virginia Tech and Miami, the post-ECU mantra that “all our goals are still in front of us” is in danger of outliving its believability with the season only half-gone.
Here’s how bad things were in Chapel Hill. East Carolina, which should have beaten the Hokies in Greenville, N.C., entered the game with 287 net rushing yards in three games. ECU ranked 188th nationally in rushing offense. Against the Tar Heels, the Pirates ran for 227 yards.
Running back Vintavious Cooper rushed for 186 yards; in three previous outings he gained a combined 161. Cooper also caught eight passes, more than any Tar Heel.
In all, a dozen Pirates had receptions, few of them against tight coverage.
“They ran it at will and threw it at will,” Fedora said. “The missed tackles were glaring when those came up. I don’t know, from standing on the sideline, what the reasons were.”
Early on it became routine for ECU players to shed a first or second tackle anywhere and everywhere on the field. Executing a hurry-up offense, the Pirates ran 101 plays, a record against UNC, resulting in 603 yards of total offense.
Even when Georgia Tech gouged the Heels for 68 points at Kenan Stadium last November, the Yellow Jackets didn’t gain that many yards.
At one point during a break in action during the second half, Pirate offensive linemen applauded, saluting their own dominance, if nothing else. Soon after, despite the apparent provocation, the visitors scored again.
To be sure, when a senior such as UNC’s A.J. Blue told reporters he saw “complacency” among teammates before the Tar Heels were manhandled by a supposedly lesser rival, it was worth noting.
But that’s a convenient explanation. More telling is the fact that the Heels already were last in the ACC in rushing offense - with 111.3 yards per game - prior to managing a measly 67 on the ground against ECU.
Operating behind an offensive line that starts three underclassmen, Blue, who got his first start of the year at tailback, was a modest factor. He seemed neither as fluid nor as elusive a runner as he was earlier in his career, nor anywhere near the threat posed by Gio Bernard, last year’s starter.
That puts more pressure to perform on quarterback Bryn Renner.
The senior showed well statistically (28 of 46 for 336 yards and three touchdowns and one interception), essentially matching the numbers of ECU counterpart Shane Carden, the game’s dominant offensive presence. Yet Renner still seems an awkward fit in Fedora’s spread offense. Worse, through the first series of the third quarter his throws were uncharacteristically erratic.
UNC wide receiver Quinshad Davis, who caught five passes and threw for a touchdown on a trick play, conceded complacency perhaps affected some teammates. But the sophomore was more concerned his team, which sputtered in the second half the previous week at Atlanta, “still hasn’t come together as one. We’re still separated a little bit.”
He also lamented a turn in fortunes proved deflating for a second straight week. Against the Yellow Jackets it was a touchdown called back by penalty with the Tar Heels already ahead. Against the Pirates it was the failure to respond to an opening touchdown with a sustained drive.
“We were excited until we went out there and that first drive didn’t work,” Davis said. “That just slowed us down. It killed everybody. We can’t let that happen. We have to keep that energy level up throughout the game.”
Fedora, in his second year building a program with numerous holdovers recruited to a different system under Butch Davis, said much the same thing.
“I know this: You’ve got to play the game with passion. You’ve got to play it with enthusiasm. You’ve got to play with energy, no matter what happens. It doesn’t matter what happens. You can’t let one play affect the next play, and we obviously don’t have that right now.”
Among sports’ great mysteries is why team enthusiasm sometimes fails to materialize, even when a football schedule only offers a dozen opportunities to play. Less mysterious is the need to block and tackle if you expect to win.