Another ugly loss leaves Tar Heels searching for answers

UNC falls to 1-5 at the halfway point in the season after familiar breakdowns on both sides of the ball lead to a 33-10 loss to Notre Dame

Notre Dame's Deon McIntosh pulls away from UNC's Myles Dorn for a long touchdown run in a game earlier this season (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — Larry Fedora’s postgame press conference lasted a shade over three minutes Saturday, by far his shortest of the season.

At this point, there’s not much left for him to say.

His North Carolina football team had just suffered its fifth loss in six games this season, 33-10 at Kenan Stadium to a Notre Dame team led by a backup quarterback, while mustering only a single touchdown for the second week in a row.

It’s a situation that has left the Tar Heels coach visibly flustered and groping for answers as he hits the halfway mark in a rapidly deteriorating season with a roster depleted by injury, a defense prone to giving up big plays and an offensive line that can’t protect a freshman quarterback still in the early stages of his learning process.

“It comes down to me as the head coach putting them in a position to be successful and I haven’t found a way to make that happen yet,,” Fedora said after watching his team give up 341 rushing yards and three touchdowns of 24 yards or longer while losing its fifth straight home game dating back to last season.

“If I knew what (the problem) was, I would have changed it. I can assure you, every minute of the day that we’re working on it.”

Despite going three-and-out on its first five possessions and getting burned for a 73-yard touchdown run by Notre Dame’s Josh Adams, UNC still found itself within reasonable striking distance of the 21st-ranked Irish as game approached halftime.

The Tar Heels finally gained their first first down of the day on a drive that took them all the way down to the Notre Dame 19 before running back Jordon Brown clipped Chazz Surratt’s hand as he set up to pass, causing a fumble that ended the threat.

Surratt bounced right back, though, by hitting Anthony Ratliff-Williams for a 25-yard touchdown that pulled UNC back to within 14-7 with just under two minutes remaining in the half.

For one brief shining moment, it appeared as though the Tar Heels might be able to give the 5-1 Irish a game when they stopped their opponent near midfield and forced it to punt. Even though the kick was downed at the 1-yard line, they still figured to have momentum on their side when they got the ball back to start the third quarter.

But then disaster struck.

Working from the shotgun four yards deep into the end zone, Surratt handed the ball to Brown, who was immediately swarmed by the Irish for a safety.

“We were going to run a basic zone play and we turned some guys loose and they hit us in the backfield,” Fedora said.

“They just brought more than we could handle,” center Cam Dillard added. “We weren’t prepared for the line stunt and the safety occurred.”

As deflating as the two points might have been to the Tar Heels’ already fragile psyche, what happened next was even worse.

On the third play after halftime, Surratt had his pass batted into the air and intercepted by defensive end Julian Okwara. Although Notre Dame only got a field goal out of the turnover, UNC was never the same.

“It was tough,” said Surratt, who completed only 19 of 42 passes for 179 yards while also leading his team in rushing with 32 net yards (66 not including sacks). “It was 14-7 and to get the safety, then the pick coming out of the second half … those were two big plays that hurt.”

The Tar Heels mustered only 115 yards of total offense and 34-yard Freeman Jones field goal over the final 30 minutes.

In the meantime, a defense that got a pair of interceptions from safety Myles Dorn and held its own at times against first-time starting quarterback Ian Book, finally wore down and allowed a pair of long touchdown runs by reserve running back Deon McIntosh that let the score to get out of hand.

Now it’s up to Fedora and his players to figure out how to stem the tide and keep the same thing from happening to the rest of their season.

“It’s just a matter of execution. That’s the biggest thing I could give you at this moment,” Ratliff-Williams said.

“It’s not pleasant,” added linebacker Cole Holcomb. “We just have to take our licks and keep chopping away and eventually good things will happen.”