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Understanding UNC's 1-5 Start

Streeter Lecka

Success doesn't hinge on some grand operatic idea...It hangs in the cumulative moments, each one building on the next, and it can be lost with the slightest hesitation!

-Tom Zarek                
"Battlestar Galactica"

I am not entirely sure why, but this quote popped in my head sitting in the press box in Kenan Stadium following UNC's 23-20 loss to Miami. That game and really all three ACC losses were not games where the Tar Heel necessarily played poorly.  In fact UNC was in those games for most part and had their share of positive plays. The problem was the plays that didn't go well which halted the momentum or undermined a crucial play.

Take the Georgia Tech game for example. UNC is leading 20-14 early in the second half when a 82-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Switzer was wiped out by a holding call. Had the play stood, UNC would have been up 26-28 to 14 on the road. It doesn't mean UNC wins the game but I would have liked to have seen what the Tar Heels might have done with that lead. Against Virginia Tech, UNC was never in control but had chances that were squandered on turnovers and yet another touchdown nullified by a penalty. Against Miami is was a blocked kicked leading to a touchdown which was the result of a special teams gaffe. There were trips to the red zones that resulted in field goals and not touchdowns. Marquise Williams and Bryn Renner both threw interceptions in Miami territory and then there was the "3rd and 1" delay of game. All cumulative moments building on one another lost with the slightest hesitation.

Zarek's line captures what is often true about football. Scoring drives are often not just one or two plays. They require a succession of moments and those moments build on each other for a positive result. One bad moment can kill any potential points scoring sequence. Similarly, the game as a whole plays out that way with North Carolina's biggest issue being a bad moment here or there overwhelming a string of good ones. At this point it feels very much like the only way UNC will win a game is play perfectly which isn't really doable. With the caliber of personnel and the lack of quality depth, there is no margin of error. The offense is good but not quite good enough to convert on that one 3rd and goal or avoid that costly penalty on a crucial play. The defense, which has struggled isn't good enough to keep an opposing team off balanced or can't get off the field when it needs to the most. And when the kick protection allows a 67-yard TD return off a blocked field goal attempt, there just isn't enough gas in the engine to make it run.

And thus the frustration. UNC fans end up watching these games torn in two between a few scraps of hope and a choking pessimism that something will go wrong.  After all, the 0-3 ACC record hasn't been marred by blowouts and two of the games that saw UNC holding a lead into the second half. It would be more fun if this team were just "good" and winning consistently. It would be easier to cope with if the team were just "bad" and getting blown out. In the case of the former it would feel like progress and with the latter you just accept it and move on. As it stands, this team It is all a huge "maybe" at this point though the only loss that was sort of unexpected was the one to ECU. That was alarming in its own right but the Tar Heels' overall position isn't that surprising given the front loaded nature of the schedule. Still there is nothing that says the Tar Heel will get run off the field but nothing that says they might actually get over the hump.

I don't blame anyone for being pessimistic at this point. General panic about the program itself is a little overwrought lest anyone forget that most people now proclaiming gloom and doom in the Fedora era were proabably also pretty sure the Heels wouldn't be 1-5 at the midway point of the season. Asking people to be patient is a tough sell because most are tired of waiting to get back the days of Mack Brown. It is understandable because after over fifteen years of being close, falling back and coaching change reset buttons being pushed there is little hope anything will actually change.

While some of the missteps this season have been the stuff of hair pulling, the reality is Bubba Cunningham invested in Larry Fedora for the long haul. He was given a seven year deal instead of the standard five years because the NCAA penalties were considered severe enough the new coach needed a longer leash to fully transition the program. In other words, the people signing he checks, knew this might get worse before it gets better. Hopefully the current season is the darkness before the dawn.