CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- If theres anything positive about North Carolina being 1-2 and 0-1 in the ACC -- and there isnt much -- its that the Tar Heels were in this exact same situation last year, and still managed to turn things around.
UNC won its debut under coach Larry Fedora, a 62-0 win over FCS Elon. And then the Tar Heels lost two straight, both on the road, and one to a mediocre Wake Forest team. (The other was at Louisville, a team that went on to win a BCS bowl).
Arguably, UNCs losses this year are better, if thats any consolation. At South Carolina and Georgia Tech are two games many expected the Tar Heels to lose. But thats not how this team is looking at those games. Senior quarterback Bryn Renner is just tired of losing.
Our backs are against the wall right now and we need to start winning ballgames, Renner said.
Both he and Fedora are perhaps more frustrated by the way the Tar Heels have played in both losses, more so than the fact that they lost both games. Fedora is used to scoring points. A lot of points, in fact.
Last year, UNC failed to score 20 or more points just once (18, in a win at Miami) and failed to hit the 30-point mark just three times.
This year, the Tar Heels have played two games against BCS-conference opponents and have scored 30 points total.
The offense has moved the ball at times, but the running game isnt quite what it was in 2012, particularly without some offensive linemen now in the NFL. Plus, the Tar Heels miss their best playmaker Giovani Bernard, who introduced himself to the nation in Week 2 of Monday Night Football, scoring two touchdowns against the Steelers.
Its not like their remaining backs -- Romar Morris and A.J. Blue -- arent capable, though. And its not like this offensive line doesnt have talent or that this wide receiving corps is not stocked with quality targets for Renner.
I dont know if theres an aspect of what were doing offensively that we feel good about yet, Fedora said.
Fedora added that it would be easier if it was just one thing the offense was doing wrong.
But it isnt.
Some of it is the continuity up front and the young guys up front," said Fedora, who is 9-6 in his first 15 games at UNC. "I think theres a lot of different pieces. Were not getting in a flow. Youve got to keep moving the chains to get into a flow offensively, and for everyone involved.
From a penalty here to a missed block here to a misread here, its always one guy. ... Whatever we could do to shoot ourselves in the foot to hurt ourselves, we did. Thats kind of been our Achilles heel this year.
The inconsistency of the offense has been almost more maddening for the Tar Heels' players and coaches. In the first half in Atlanta, they put up 263 yards on 35 plays and scored touchdowns on three of five drives. In the second half, they ran up a total of 56 yards, went three-and-out on two of four drives and never reached the endzone.
I think its just execution. We dont have the same pieces to the puzzle that we did last year, but we have to execute better, Renner said. Its a different team this year, so were getting used to everybody out there. But it is early. Its Week 3. We didnt start off the way we wanted to, but we still have all of our goals in front of us. But we did put our backs against the wall not performing the way were capable of for those two games that we lost.
"We have a long road ahead of us.
Now, an East Carolina team comes to town that will certainly be upset-minded. The Pirates are 2-1 on the season with no wins to write home about (Old Dominion and FIU), but they gave Virginia Tech a scare, falling just 15-10 to the Hokies two weeks ago.
Last year, a downtrodden Tar Heel team came back home after started 1-2 on the year and beat ECU 27-6. That was the first of what would be a four-game win streak.
Every time you step out, you can get on a little roll and thats what were going to try to do this weekend. I think for us, its a confidence-builder, Renner said. How quickly are we going to respond and get over the bad taste? We started off the game great against Georgia Tech but didnt finish it, and thats going to be one of our main points this week.
The Tar Heels have a 12-2-1 all-time record against ECU, but one of those losses was in 2007 to a team that included current Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, by the way. From 2000-09, the teams played four times and UNC outscored ECU by an average of just 6.3 points.
However, since 2010, UNCs average margin of victory has been 20.3 points.
Head coach Ruffin McNeill is in his third year as head coach of the Pirates, though, and things are starting to turn around after three straight losing seasons. And McNeill knows Fedora well. Theyve faced off five times as opposing coordinators or position coaches -- twice when McNeill was at UNLV and Fedora was at Air Force, then three times when McNeill was at Texas Tech and Fedora was at Oklahoma State. Finally, they met as head coaches when Fedora was at his last stop (Southern Miss) and McNeill got the ECU job.
Fedora was 2-2 against ECU while he was at Southern Miss, 2-1 against McNeill.
Numbers aside, the fact remains that this game wont be taken lightly by the Tar Heels at all. They know what ECU can do, and in spite of the one-game-at-a-time talk, they have to know that their next two games after this are at Virginia Tech and Miami at home.
ECU isnt in a BCS conference, but theyve generally been a frisky opponent for the in-state BCS-league schools like UNC, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Duke. They're not going to roll over for the Tar Heels by any means, and UNC is going to have to earn a win on Saturday.
Theyre a scary opponent, I think, Renner said. I think its going to be a tough test for us because they do have that chip on their shoulder that we are Carolina and they are East Carolina, but I think its going to be a great game like it always is every year. I think its going to be a tough test for us.