UNC fueled by final losses to Clemson, Baylor

CHAPEL HILL — Through four years at the program, one of Larry Fedora’s many mantras has been to focus on the next game. That’s the most important one, the only one that the UNC football coach will talk about on any given game week.But on the first day of UNC’s training camp, quarterback Mitch Trubisky is already looking much farther ahead than the Sept. 3 opener against Georgia. Sure, that one is plenty important, but after two final losses to Clemson and Baylor last season, Trubisky knows the last game is just as important as the first.”That’s one of our goals for this year, is to win our last game,” Trubisky said Friday. “No matter what it is. That’s one of our goals. Win our last game. That’s a big emphasis. You’ve got to start strong and finish strong, so we’re going to try and win that last game this year.”It breaks Fedora’s typically narrow focus, but it makes sense. The Tar Heels compiled record numbers last year, tying the school record with 11 wins. They put up an undefeated ACC regular season and captured the Coastal Division crown.It was an impressive season, but rather than defining it by what they were able to accomplish in 11 wins, the Tar Heels are focused on what they couldn’t achieve in their three losses.”You don’t have to worry about them being satisfied with what they did,” Fedora said. “That was just a new bar that was set. This team, this 2016 team, which is the 126th team at the University of North Carolina, they want to set a new bar themselves. That’s why they’re working so hard.”First, there was the season-opening loss to South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium. Quarterback Marquise Williams faltered, throwing three interceptions in the 17-13 loss. But UNC bounced back with an 11-game tear through the rest of the regular season, earning national recognition and ranking. But it still wasn’t enough. To be solidified as a truly great team by national standards, the Tar Heels had to win the big ones. That test came back at Bank of America Stadium against a heavily favored Clemson team. Deshaun Watson’s 420 yards and five touchdowns pushed the Tigers past UNC and onto the Orange Bowl while the Tar Heels went to the Citrus Bowl for redemption.But UNC didn’t find any of that against Baylor in Orlando as the Bears demolished the Tar Heels 49-38, putting a sour ending on what was otherwise a season to remember.”We didn’t end the year the way we wanted to so they’ve had a bad taste in their mouth for 220 days now,” Fedora said. “They know that there are about 28 days from the possibility of getting the bad taste out of their mouth. So they put in a lot of work so that chemistry and the bond that they built from January all the way to this point and all the things that we do in the program will make us better and a more cohesive unit when adversity does strike. And it’s coming.”Though Trubisky was on the bench for most of last season while Williams racked up the records in his senior season, he said he felt the gut-punching loss to Baylor just as much as the players on the field and it’s fueling him in training camp.Running back Elijah Hood was one of those guys on the field against Baylor. Though he put together a standout sophomore campaign with a team-best 1,463 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, the losses to Baylor and Clemson still hang with him and prove that both he and his team are far from hitting their ceiling.”We definitely remember that last game,” Hood said. “That’s definitely not the way we want to end the season. It just showed us, we’re not exactly where we want to be. We made strides but it’s always more we can do. There’s so much more we can do. We can be so much better in certain things. There’s little things that we were lacking in terms of paying attention to details and things like that, that if we had fully employed them and implemented them, we would’ve been better.”The men on the defensive side of the ball feel the same way. Though there was a drastic improvement in unit in the first year under defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, the Tar Heels gave up a combined 1,364 yards in the final two games. Like Trubisky and Hood, defensive tackle Nazair Jones remembers the feeling after those losses, and he’s planning on channelling that rage throughout the preseason.”We use it and it balls up in our gut and we just get ready to explode on the 3rd because nobody likes that feeling,” Naz Jones said. “Especially because they always say we can’t finish the big games. We lose to South Carolina, Baylor, Clemson. So really it doesn’t matter what we do, we’ve just got to finish the big games because we’re going to be in those big games.”