Fedora, Tar Heels trying to reverse program's 2-year slide
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — This wasn't what North Carolina coach Larry Fedora had envisioned for his seventh season.
Things started badly with 13 players facing suspensions for selling team-issued shoes , which followed Fedora's much-criticized comments on football's ties to the degenerative brain disease CTE. Now the one-win Tar Heels are hurtling toward a second straight bowl-less finish and finding ways to lose close games, a stark turn in the program's direction since winning an Atlantic Coast Conference division championship in 2015.
"There's not a fan that sits in the seats or on a message board or anything out there that wants it worse than these kids want it or that are working harder than these kids to make it happen," Fedora said. "My job is to put them in a position so that they can do that, and I haven't done that yet."
UNC tied a program record with 11 wins in 2015, won the Coastal Division and reached No. 8 in the Top 25. But after an 18-5 stretch with a 13-2 record against league teams, the Tar Heels (1-7, 1-5) have lost 19 of 24 overall and 14 of 16 in the ACC since November 2016 entering Saturday's trip to rival Duke.
The list includes a mistake-filled home loss to Virginia Tech after surrendering the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left on a 98-yard drive. There was a double-overtime loss at No. 13 Syracuse. And the Tar Heels rallied from 18 down in the third quarter to tie Georgia Tech in the fourth, only to commit two turnovers that propelled the Yellow Jackets to the win .
That's all in the past month, too.
The problems include shaky quarterback play for the second straight year. There's another growing list of injuries, including season-ending wrist surgery for sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt and two freshman QBs who went down during gameday auditions to replace seven-game starter Nathan Elliott. The Tar Heels also rank among the Bowl Subdivision's worst in turnover margin.
That's hampered the staple of Fedora's tenure: a high-powered offense that provided plenty of cover for mistakes. The Tar Heels averaged 35.9 points and 453.4 yards through his first five seasons, but have slid to 25.1 points and 384 yards over 2017 and 2018.
"Our margin for error is so small right now that every mistake that's made is magnified in everything we do," Fedora said.
At least effort hasn't been a problem, with Fedora noting: "I've told them I can't ask them to work any harder."
"I think our team has done actually a good job of just moving on to the next week, not losing hope — just coming out and grinding every single day," offensive tackle Charlie Heck said.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said his team knows to expect a tough game regardless of UNC's record.
"Watching tape of this team and previous North Carolina teams, this is a well, well-coached football team, a talented football team that's had some misfortune," Cutcliffe said. "But on tape they're a good football team."
It was in this game two years ago that UNC's slide began, even if then it seemed like merely one bad night.
Led by No. 2 overall NFL draft pick Mitch Trubisky at quarterback, the 15th-ranked Tar Heels went to Durham to face the winless-in-the-ACC Blue Devils. Yet UNC's offense sputtered after halftime — foreshadowing current problems — in the 28-27 loss .
Fedora has pointed to turnovers as the slide's top cause, though there are several factors.
There has been significant coaching turnover, notably with the departures of strong coordinators when Seth Littrell (offense) left in December 2015 to become North Texas' head coach and Gene Chizik (defense) leaving coaching in early 2017. Trubisky left a year early after his rapid ascent as a pro prospect, leaving QB questions the Tar Heels have yet to reliably answer.
Fedora agreed to a new contract after the 2015 division title. That deal runs through the 2022 season, and a coaching change could cost UNC more than $12 million.
For now, Fedora is consumed with helping his players find the winning play or two that has eluded them.
"They know it's coming — they do," Fedora said. "Their effort has been unbelievable. Their fight, their will to win, all of those things are there. You can see it in their eyes. And they will continue to battle until we break through and get over the top."