CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — On the surface, the biggest question going into No. 23 North Carolina’s season-opener against Liberty involved the margin of victory in the Tar Heels’ favor.
After UNC got off to a quick 7-0 start, that still seemed to be the case. But Liberty took the lead twice — 15-14 in the second quarter, and then 22-21 in the third — before the Tar Heels could pull away for good and win 56-29, thanks to a four-minute stretch of 28 unanswered points.
Does it mean anything? Who knows? But some of UNC’s issues that it had last season cropped up again, and that could be more troubling than how UNC struggled in its first game as a ranked team since 2010.
For some time, head coach Fedora has placed a high priority on UNC cutting back on its mistakes, particularly the penalties. Well, neither of those things really happened against Liberty, as the Tar Heels turned the ball over four times and committed 10 penalties for 60 yards.
That’s not a ton of penalty yardage, but six of the penalties happened when the game was still relatively close.
The kicker was UNC getting an illegal substitution penalty on defense — out of a timeout. Senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer insists that one wasn’t a huge deal, though.
"We have a base defensive package and then a package we call ‘money’, which is our third down and nickel package. There was just confusion about which package we were in. It wasn’t a big deal," Schoettmer said.
To Fedora, though, he knows these mistakes against other teams could mount and be more costly than they were against Liberty.
And frankly, Fedora knows his teams have been mistake-prone since he got to Chapel Hill.
"We’ve got a lot of room to grow. We had 10 penalties, which, I mean, I can’t tell you how much emphasis we put on getting that cleaned up. We still have a long way to go in that area also," Fedora said.
"We made a lot of mistakes — a ton of mistakes, actually — throughout the game. But we also created a lot of turnovers and did a lot of good things throughout the game. We’ve got a lot to work on. For the first game, you get the win, and that’s what you want, and then you want to learn from all the mistakes you make and you become a better football team."
UNC was able to overcome all of that to score 28 unanswered points, mostly on the back of forced Liberty turnovers the Tar Heels turned into points — and quickly.
Not to take out UNC’s 28-0 "run" during a four-plus-minute stretch in the third quarter; but without it, the game with Liberty was pretty even.
"We’ve got a long way to go," Fedora said. "There’s nothing pretty about that game, I can assure you, when you go outside of that four minutes."
That is still up in the air, even after Marquise Williams got the start for North Carolina. But freshman Mitch Trubisky got plenty of reps, too.
Williams accidentally let slip that he and Trubisky both knew who the starter would be a few weeks ago because, according to Williams, the amount of time each player was going to see was scripted in a mock game played a few weeks ago.
Williams finished 19 of 29 passing for 169 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also had six rushes for 52 yards and two TDs, and was the second-leading rusher on the team, behind walk-on Charles Brunson’s garbage-time yardage.
Trubisky finished 10 of 16 for 66 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He had seven yards rushing on four carries, but was sacked twice.
"I thought they did a good job of managing the game. They moved the chains," Fedora said of his two quarterbacks.
"I think we were 9-of-17 on third downs, which is pretty good for us. What I didn’t like were the interceptions. All three were avoidable, and especially one of them in the situation we were in. But we got out of it with a win. Both of them got a bunch of really good reps. We came out in good shape there. So I think we’ll get better there."
Both Fedora and the QBs’ teammates stuck to the line that both quarterbacks are so similar that it really makes no difference who plays … and when.
"We didn’t change anything, really. Both of them can run and both of them can throw, so we really didn’t change the offense. It makes it much easier on the staff," Fedora said.
But Williams admitted — just like he did last year, when he used to split time with former UNC starter Bryn Renner — that it can affect a quarterback’s momentum.
"Sometimes, you get off rhythm," Williams said. "You’ve got to find some rhythm to keep your drives going but I stuck it out and did what I needed to do to help us win this ball game. Offensively, we’ve got some work to do but we’re going to be a good football team."
Williams doesn’t mind, though.
"A lot of people look at it like ‘Oh man, you probably hate (Trubisky)’. I don’t hate him one bit. I was probably the happiest man when he threw his first touchdown," Williams said.
Speaking of rhythm, it might have affected UNC’s stable of running backs. There are four talented backs — Romar Morris, starter T.J. Logan, Khris Francis and freshmen Elijah Hood — but not a lot of extra carries to spare.
On Saturday, the quartet combined for 27 carries, 124 yards and one touchdown. Only Logan came close to double-digit rushes (nine for 45 yards).
That was the plan, Fedora said, until of the backs forces the issue — in a positive way.
"(Carries would be split evenly), unless somebody got hot. I would say the guy that got hot was (walk-on and leading rusher Charles) Brunson at the end," Fedora said.
"We just felt like if somebody got really productive and was tearing it up, then they would stay out on the field. I don’t know that anybody ever did that throughout the game, so we split the reps with them which means they’ll all be fresher next week."
Williams thought that, in the same way a lack of rhythm affected he and Trubisky, it might have affected the tailbacks, too.
"It affects a lot of guys. A lot of guys have got to find a way to get in a groove — like Charles Brunson. He came in, he was running, running, he’s finding his groove. That’s just the name of the game," Williams said.
We knew going into the season that UNC’s defense was going to be a problem. The Tar Heels lost a lot up front, and they weren’t great up front last year anyway.
When North Carolina was at their best a season ago, finishing as strongly as they did, the defense was opportunistic and good at creating turnovers. When UNC’s defense was good against Liberty, it did the same thing.
But too often it was gashed via both the run and the pass. In theory, UNC should have a significant physical advantage, particularly on the front line, but that didn’t seem to manifest itself for awhile.
Now, the Tar Heels were missing four defensive backs due to suspension, including three starters. But in the first half, the missing DBs weren’t really an issue. Liberty was getting yardage in chunks, and a lot of it was coming because of a lack of pressure from UNC’s front — not the defensive backs.
"You go in at halftime and our guys, they were disappointed in what had happened in the first half," Fedora said. "They were extremely excited about going back out on the field. They were rallying. The energy level in the locker room was incredible at half, and it wasn’t anything the coaches did.
"It was all them. We go back out and the defense starts creating turnovers left and right. You do that, you’ve got a chance to win a bunch of games. … It was just a change in attitude, really."
Sometimes, UNC was a different defense from half to half a season ago, too. So there’s no telling if this early blip was a sign of things to come for the rest of 2014, or just a defense that had to adjust to life without a few starters relatively late in the week was just having trouble finding its way.
Fedora, of course, preferred to give credit to Liberty.
"That quarterback is really good. He is a good football player and he picked on us quite a bit. He found the open guy," Fedora said. "They did a great job with that. If it wouldn’t have been the turnovers for them, it would’ve been a game for sure. But I thought (the defense) stepped up and did a really nice job."