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As we head into the final days of October and this Saturday's UNC-Boston College game, the Tar Heels are at a place that few could have anticipated back in August---and one that most UNC fans could have only imagined in their nightmares.
Reality is that the Tar Heels are very close---as head coach Larry Fedora has alluded to in multiple recent interviews---but they haven't been able to put it all together for 60 minutes to beat good opponents.
Another chance emerges this week against the Eagles, who sit at 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the ACC. Their lone league triumph came over Wake Forest, while BC fell to league powerhouses Clemson and Florida State, though they played each of them tough.
BC scored 34 points against FSU's powerful defense (though they allowed 48 to the Seminoles), and the Eagles largely held down Clemson's strong offense in a 24-14 defeat.
Point is, UNC can't afford to head into this one thinking it's a guaranteed win.
Fedora says that the Tar Heels mentally are in a good place coming off last week's gut-wrenching loss to Miami, and that they've responded well in practice this week.
"Mentally I think our guys are fine. They know we're extremely close. We've just got to make a break for ourselves. We can't make the mistakes that we made and win a close game like we did the other night, and we can't -- we have to overcome whatever mistakes we made, and we just didn't find a way to do that. But I think mentally our guys are fine. I think they're pretty tough mentally, and they're going to continue to fight and scratch and claw and find a way to get it done," he said.
The UNC defense has been much-discussed for its shortcomings, and certainly they've given up a ton of yardage in Carolina's five losses.
This week the challenge is to slow down a physical Boston College offensive line and arguably the league's best running back, Andre Williams, who comes in leading the ACC in rushing, averaging just under 140 yards per game.
Tar Heel Illustrated spoke with defensive coach Vic Koenning earlier this week about the team's effort where things are heading into this week's contest.
For the most part Koenning has been pleased with how hard the defense has played except for one glaring exception, and naturally he's hopeful they won't regress again against the Eagles after forcing four turnovers and making some strides against unbeaten Miami.
"Except for the East Carolina game, our guys have played hard. I can't fault them for how hard they've played," Koenning said.
Big plays are still a major cause for concern on defense of course, but effort hasn't been the issue in recent setbacks to Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Miami. The defense played hard, got three-and-outs, and made things happen in all those games.
Limiting the big ones is paramount to slowing down opposing teams, while also maintaining a relatively high level of effort, and even Koenning suggested that a letdown of the effort level could make things even more disastrous for UNC than they already are.
"We've given up a couple deep balls to Virginia Tech, South Carolina. We gave up some big plays the other night (against the 'Canes). But the guys are playing really hard, and you can't fault that," Koenning replied. "We have some guys, it's not their fault. It shouldn't be their time yet and they're having to rise up and play at a higher level."
With a defensive lineup featuring numerous youngsters, including true freshmen in the secondary rotation including Dominique Green and Brian Walker, the Tar Heels are learning on the fly, so to speak, at certain positions.
That, of course, is a risk-reward proposition. The risk is big plays such as the one Green gave up on a misjudged ball against Miami, only for him to get a pair of rewards in the form of interceptions in the same game.
"Honestly, we have a lot of guys who are playing really far over their heads right now," said Koenning. "And that's what we've got to do as coaches is continue to get them to do, and not have a game where we play average. Because if we play average, we give up 55 (points). We just can't. We have to play as hard and as fast as we can possibly play or we're going to give up a lot of points. That's just where we're at right now."
One of the challenges that always comes around in midseason for all college football programs is the struggle between preparing the necessary way each week, while also managing to stay fresh enough to go out and compete at a high level on Saturday.
It's a juggling act that Fedora admitted this week wasn't an easy one. They're not able to work on as much tackling fundamentals because they don't want to beat the players up heading into games, but at the same time, there's certain techniques and drills that they have to work on each week in order to best be prepared for each opposing team.
It's incumbent on the players this time of the season to take care of themselves, both on and off the field. It's critical to eat right. To hydrate. To make sure they're going to treatment each day if they're banged up. To stretch. And perhaps most of all, to get plenty of sleep each night.
"The way we practice, whether you like it or not, it's the way it is. We have adjust as we go through the season," Fedora said. "The wear and tear of their bodies gets to be pretty extensive. But these guys do a great job in the weight room. They do a great job of stretching and using the rollers and continuing to take care of their bodies. And that's the only way you're going to make it through."
Certainly frustration is high right now among UNC fans at the team's poor start this fall, along with a certain level of apathy at the moment.
Now just imagine how much frustration must exist among the players and coaches, who have invested so much of their lives, their time, their energies, to the singular goal of going out and winning games on Saturdays (and the occasional Thursday).
They can't afford to be apathetic. They simply have to keep pressing, keep working, keep aiming towards a goal of victory that's still very much attainable, especially in a more favorable back half of the schedule.
"We've got a lot of guys who are starting to get better. We've just got to keep pressing. I know it's a broken record, but we've got to keep going as hard as we can, as fast as we can, every day," said Koenning. "You get frustrated. Nobody is more frustrated than us, I promise you. I think our players are frustrated. I think it was Lou Holtz who said the most frustrated people are bad players, because they know they can't do things, and they want to do things. We've got some guys that are trying their tails off and that's all we can ask of them."
It's continued to be a struggle getting certain players to respond to everything that's going on around them, but on the whole, Koenning sees improvement and a better spirit in recent workouts than he saw earlier in the season.
"Some of them are getting better. Some of them, there's some things we've got to get better. There's still a few guys that we're having to spend so much time on. They ought to be making improvements," Koenning continued. "The old saying 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease,' but you're spending most of your time on a small percentage of the players, because the other guys are starting to get it."
"The guys have great attitudes. These guys have a great attitude. They're resilient. They continue to work hard. They continue to believe in each other. And they're going to keep fighting, scratching, and clawing," added Coach Fedora. "We're trying to get ready for a good football team. Their (Boston College's) only losses are to USC, Clemson, and Florida State. So we know it's a good football team we have coming in here."
Playing physical, slowing down Boston College's solid running game, and producing offensively---which means coming through in the red zone---are all huge keys to the Tar Heels in this one, and Fedora seems to understand precisely what must happen.
"We're doing everything we can. We have our keys to victory on defense, and our guys know what they're going to have to do. It's going to be a physical football game. We know that, and we have got to be physical. We've got to be physical and we've got to stop the run," he said.