By Lee Pace
Tar Heel football at one of its periodic high-water marks and coming off a double-digit win year that ended with a bowl loss in the state of Florida ... modest pullback the following year, including an October disaster against a rival from the state of Virginia ... November pall cast by a turnover-plagued loss to a much-reviled opponent ... core group of seniors who’ve provided ballast to a coach’s ascending program on the way out ... trip to the far reaches of West Texas to face a big-time college football program in the Sun Bowl a perfect opportunity to smooth the year’s irritations and build fund-raising momentum for an important facility initiative ... a crisp opening drive setting a perfect tone for an opening touchdown on a chilly day in the old venue built in a basin beneath stark, gray mountains ... Carolina’s momentum crushed by a costly Tar Heel turnover that the opposition returns to the end zone for seven points ... and at the very end, a Carolina pass play that goes horribly awry.
Tar Heel football, 2016? Yes.
And Tar Heel football, 1994? Bulls-eye.
What goes around, certainly comes around. The Tar Heels’ 25-23 loss to Stanford on Friday afternoon and their 8-5 season looks remarkably familiar to their 35-31 defeat to Texas exactly 22 years ago.
Back then it was Coach Mack Brown taking his program to 10-3 in 1993, the year ending with a loss to Alabama in the Gator Bowl. Senior captains Jason Stanicek, Mike Morton, Jimmy Hitchcock and William Henderson hoped to build on that the next fall, but a 34-10 lambasting at Virginia and 28-17 loss in Kenan Stadium to a mediocre Clemson team tripped that vision up, the squad finishing 8-3. Brown shucked off overtures from Oklahoma during bowl prep for a Sun Bowl meeting with Texas, a promise from Carolina AD John Swofford that an opulent new football center and west end zone seating addition to Kenan Stadium would be built among the enticements to stay in Chapel Hill. Carolina jumped to a quick 7-0 lead in the bowl game with QB Mike Thomas leading the way, but in the second quarter a fumble by QB Jason Stanicek was returned for a Longhorn touchdown. At the end, Thomas was hit trying to complete a game-winning touchdown pass, Texas plucked the ball out of the air and Brown and the Tar Heels were left to reboot and refocus their vision—amidst much caterwauling from the masses and at a time before the internet had been popularized.
“The thing we want to do is go where North Carolina’s never been, and that’s to be in the top 10 on a consistent basis,” Brown said.
Fast forward past three presidents and the inventions of something called the iPad, Twitter and the spread offense, and we have Larry Fedora having taken his Carolina program to an 11-1 regular season in 2015 before losses to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game and to Baylor in an Orlando Bowl. High hopes for 2016 are tempered with the reality of Carolina’s razor-thin-in-places depth chart, and injuries to senior tackle Caleb Peterson early in the year and to senior receiver Mack Hollins in mid-season take just enough edge off the Tar Heels’ customary fireworks. Peterson’s leadership and experience are sorely missed, and not having the threat of Hollins going deep makes life considerably less stressful for opposing defensive coordinators. Sadly the Carolina offense sloughs off just enough to stutter against Virginia Tech back in an October monsoon and against Duke and N.C. State during the November homestretch.
“I thought we under-achieved offensively, we did not meet our expectations,” said Fedora, who was approached in December by head-hunters from the Deep South and Texas but is committed to finishing what he started at Carolina, particularly with a new indoor practice facility on the horizon. “That was a big part of why we were not successful the last month of season. We’ve got high expectations on offense, and we did not perform like we normally do. A lot of that was simply not making ordinary plays, the plays we normally make. That’s been something we’ve looked at focused during bowl preparations.”
Deja vu in El Paso: Plenty of cow and authentic Tex-Mex food during an hospitable visit to the 83rd rendition of the Sun Bowl, an authoritative opening drive for a score and later a pick-six by Stanford cornerback Dallas Lloyd when QB Mitch Trubisky makes a poor throw on a wheel route to tailback T.J. Logan. The Cardinal, just like Clemson and Baylor in 2015 and N.C. State in the 2016, fields a defensive front that the Tar Heels simply cannot block consistently, and Stanford smothers Trubisky on a two-point conversion at the end of game that ends the Tar Heels’ hopes. It’s a somber ending indeed for a 2013 signing class that included Nazair Jones, Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, Des Lawrence, Mikey Bart and others. And it might have been the swan song for Trubisky, should he opt to enter the NFL Draft this spring.
“This team has been messing with our emotions for 40 years,” texted an old friend (language cleaned up) immediately after the game. The landscape over any of our memories includes impressive highs and stupefying lows, from pounding Bobby Bowden and Florida State by 32 points in 2001 to giving up 69 points to Louisville four years later.
Fedora and the Tar Heels are entering an important juncture entering year six. They’re losing some excellent seniors but are anxious to see if a roster no longer burdened by scholarship restrictions can self-perpetuate. The defense played its best game of the year against Stanford, and it would be immensely valuable if that side of the ball could take some load off the offense needing to score 35 points every week. How will Elijah Hood, who missed the bowl game because of medical reasons, bounce back next August? Will there be any staff comings and goings in the off-season? How would the Tar Heels handle the potential departure of Trubisky, which would leave them without an upperclassman incumbent given the transfer last August of Caleb Henderson to Maryland?
With the sting of November still fresh and the gut-punch in Texas still raw, it’s difficult to dial it back and look at the big picture. But the Tar Heels did go on the road to win at Florida State and Miami back in October, and over two years they’ve cranked out 463 yards and 37 points a game—the best two consecutive years in school history. Fedora took decisive action to correct an abysmal defensive situation after the 2014 season and went to Australia this past off-season to plug a special-teams hole in the person of punter Tom Sheldon. The Tar Heels have won 19 games over two years, the most since Brown’s 1996-97 teams reeled off 21.
Broadcaster Jones Angell in his interview with Fedora immediately after the game on the Tar Heel Sports Network asked, “How do you try to flush this one away and start building toward 2017?”
“You don’t flush it,” Fedora said. “You let it eat at you the whole rest of the year until you play again. That’s what you do. If it means enough to you it’ll eat at you until you do step out there again.”
And a few minutes later in the media room, he elaborated:
“I hope they can still feel this feeling they have in their gut right now and I hope they never forget it,” Fedora said. “It makes you a better person, it really does. You can lay down and cry about it, or you can get up and bust your ass and be a better football player because of it.”
It turned out that 1994 was a hiccup in an upward trajectory. Would that 2016 serve the very same function.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace has covered Tar Heel football for 26 years through “Extra Points” and a dozen as the Tar Heel Sports Network’s sideline reporter. He published last August a book on Kenan Stadium, “Football in a Forest.” Follow him at @LeePaceTweet and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.