With a win at Pitt behind them and a 5-5 record after a 1-5 start, Carolina hosts Old Dominion on Saturday. The Monarchs, in the midst of a transition from FCS to FBS, are 8-3 with losses at East Carolina, Maryland and Pittsburgh.
Before looking ahead to this weekend, Fedora reflected on the film session from Saturday’s win in Pittsburgh. He highlighted the special teams, as Tommy Hibbard averaged 43.2 yards per punt and had three downed inside the Panther 20. Additionally, “our return unit had a couple of game-changing plays and did some nice things,” Fedora said.
Carolina jumped out to a 27-3 lead but then had to hold on for dear life as the Panthers tied the game before Ryan Switzer had one of those game-changing plays. The offensive gridlock was noticeable. After scoring on four of their first five possessions, the Tar Heel offense hit a rough patch in after intermission. On eight possessions in the second half Carolina mustered just 93 yards and did not convert a third down. The Tar Heels’ only second half scores only scores were a field goal after Pitt fumble at the Panther 12 and Switzer’s second punt return touchdown. Furthermore, ten Panther points came after Tar Heel turnovers.
“I just felt like we laid down in the second half, and I take that on me because I’m the leader,” quarterback Marquise Williams said. “I have to pick the guys up.”
The theme of the second half of this football season has been going 1-0 in a given week. After the loss to Miami, the Tar Heels stopped looking too far ahead and instead focused solely on the upcoming opponent. So it was to be expected that even with the Tar Heels a win away from bowl eligibility, Fedora, Williams and defensive end Kareem Martin stressed that 1-0 concept. And Fedora wouldn’t entertain the temptation to look back and ask ‘What if?’ about a few plays early in the season that could have changed the Tar Heels’ record.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you better just keep doing the things you’re doing and not let all the distractions on the outside . . . if you start thinking about that then you start causing problems for yourself. The focus has to be where it’s been and we don’t want to change that, and we want to keep everybody in that same mode where we’re all thinking the same way, still doing the things that put us in that position.”
Fedora admitted that while he hasn’t talked to his team about a bowl game, he’s aware that his players know the stakes for the next two weekends: Win one more and give yourself a 13th game. Win both and give yourself a higher-profile 13th game.
“To be honest we haven’t talked about a bowl game,” Williams said, stressing the team’s mindset is on going 1-0 each week. “That’s what we’ve been focusing on and that’s where our focus is going to be, just focusing on getting this win this Saturday and then what’s next.”
After missing out on the postseason last year, Martin wasn’t shy about talking about a potential 13th game in 2013. “To be able to go to a bowl game with this staff . . . we had the record for it last year but due to the sanctions we weren’t allowed to go. But now, going to a bowl game would finally just put everything behind us.”
Senior defensive back Terry Shankle had the best game of his career on Saturday. He led the team in tackles (eight) had three tackles for loss (including his first two career sacks) and had a pass breakup. It’s been a rough road for Shankle, who redshirted in 2009 and tore his ACL late in a game against Miami in 2010. So for fans of comeback stories, Shankle’s game at Pitt was one to remember. Fedora said it took looking at the film to realize just how impactful Shankle had been. “I saw him get to the quarterback, but it just didn’t register in my mind,” he said. “That’s a phenomenal game, really,” Fedora said. “It was just kind of hidden, but when you went back and looked at film, he was all over the field and he was making plays in just about every series.”
After making his first career start at center on Saturday, true freshman Lucas Crowley figures to be in the mix there for the home stretch, with Russell Bodine moonlighting at left guard. Fedora said there was both good play and room for improvement from Crowley. “He looked like a true freshman playing in his first conference game and starting,” the head coach said, acknowledging the though matchup with Pitt’s Aaron Donald. “That’s a tough situation to put him in, (but) we didn’t have a single bad snap, alright?. And that alone is a heck of a job by a true freshman center.”
“I didn’t even think he was a freshman, playing under him,” Williams said of Crowley. “He told me he didn’t play very well, but I think he did an awesome job going against an All-American.”
Donald was his usual disruptive self, but Crowley and the Tar Heel offensive line did enough to help the team win. “Some plays he got beat, but hey, in the future he’s going to be a great player,” Williams said of Crowley. “I can’t wait to play with him.”