Goals ‘out the window,’ UNC sets sights on finishing strong

Getting back in the win column is the Tar Heels' top priority as they head to Pittsburgh on Thursday after a badly needed week off

Third string quarterback Nathan Elliott can't come up with the ball on a trick play during UNC's 24-19 loss to Miami on Oct. 24 (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

 The Coastal Division championship. A bowl bid. A winning season. They’re all faded dreams for the North Carolina football team now.

  “Our goals were out the window a while ago,” coach Larry Fedora admitted Monday.

  That’s a depressing reality for a team that still has three games left to play before putting a forgettable 2017 mercifully into the books.

  So what do the Tar Heels have left to motivate them as they prepare to take on Pittsburgh in a nationally televised game on Thursday?

  “Winning this game,” Fedora said. “That’s our goal, to be 1-0 this week. That’s really all we’re doing, let’s just be 1-0 this week.”

  UNC hasn’t been 1-0 for a week since Sept. 16 at Old Dominion. It’s still the Tar Heels’ only win to date thanks in large part to an epidemic of injuries that has sidelined 17 players for the season and numerous others — including top two quarterbacks Chazz Surratt and Brandon Harris — for their most recent game against Miami.

  Fedora’s team is still dangerously thin, especially at wide receiver and on the offensive line.

  The good news is that after last week’s badly needed bye, UNC is as healthy both physically and psychologically as it has been in awhile.

  “We got some good work in, we got some fundamental work, we got a bunch of work with some young guys, we got some guys rested up, which we needed to do,”Fedora said of the week off. “It was productive, I thought it was very productive.”

  And not just on the field.

  “I trimmed the shrubs and then I fixed a toilet,” Fedora said when asked what he did while his team was idle. “There were about five or six things on (his wife’s) list before I could watch college football.

   “Saturday was good. I got to watch some games, cook some steaks and relax, and pick up a few things that you think you can add to the offense and defense, so it was good.”

  Despite their 1-8 record (0-6 ACC), the Tar Heels actually have a few things going for them as they make their biannual trip to the Steel City.

  They’re coming off an encouraging effort in which they took undefeated and seventh-ranked Miami down to the final possession before dropping a 24-19 decision. They’re also 4-0 against Pittsburgh since the Panthers joined the ACC and have won their last three games following a week off.

  Pitt, however, appears to have gotten its act together after a slow start, with wins against Coastal Division rivals Duke and Virginia in its last two games to improve to 4-5 overall and 2-3 in the ACC. The Panthers’ turnaround can be directly traced to the emergence of junior running back Darrin Hall, who has averaged 182.5 yards on the ground in those two victories.

  “They’ve done a good job of care of the football,” Fedora said. “They run the ball well, a lot of shifting, motioning, trying to get you out-gapped.”

  Stopping the Panthers won’t do anything to help UNC accomplish any of the big picture goals it set for itself at the start of the season. But it sure would help salve a few of its wounds, especially among a group of upperclassmen still hoping to finish their careers on a positive note.

  “It’s about what kind of legacy do you want to leave, how do you want to finish in November and all those things,” Fedora said. “It starts with the seniors. We met with them to find out what they want out of this. When they made clear what they wanted, we set the goal for the rest of the team.”