Tri-partisan

Clean it up, Larry: Discipline costs Tar Heels games

Posted September 7

Football is not solitaire. As much as we’d like to think every win or loss by our team is dependent on only what they do, there is another team across the field, an opponent across the line of scrimmage whose actions and reactions play a role in the outcome. It’s not just the hand your team is dealt; it’s how you deal with the opponent.

But dang it, Larry. Clean it up.

Carolina is 40-26 under Larry Fedora at Carolina through five full seasons and last weekend’s 2017 opener. That’s a win percentage of just over 60, second-best (behind Dick Crum) over the last 65 years at Carolina. In games decided by eight points or fewer, Carolina is 15-13 under Fedora. That figure includes some of the program’s most memorable wins in recent years – at Florida State a year ago, at Virginia Tech to clinch a division title in 2015, Gio Bernard’s punt return in 2012 – but it also accounts for some crushing, season-changing losses – a one-point loss at Duke last year, the ACC Championship Game in 2015, the 4-point loss to South Carolina in the season opener that same year, last year’s Sun Bowl.

Last week, Carolina’s Jalen Dalton committed a boneheaded personal foul on Cal quarterback Ross Bowers. Late in the first half, with Cal facing third and 12 at their own 18, Bowers scrambled out of the pocket and then threw the ball away. Had the play ended there, Carolina would have gotten the ball in good field position to try to pad a 10-point lead and head into the locker room. But it didn’t.

Dalton launched himself into Bowers, led with the helmet and was ejected for targeting. A 15-yard penalty allowed the Bears to keep the ball, and Bowers found Vi Wharton III for a 67-yard touchdown pass on the very next play. A 10-point Tar Heel lead became three, and Cal would take momentum and the ball after halftime, ultimately earning a 5-point win.

It’s a troubling trend of late. Discipline penalties have been extremely costly in close games for Carolina. Those 13 close losses have come by a total of 57 points, a margin of just under 4.4 per game. In those games, 18 personal foul, unsportsmanlike conduct or facemask penalties came on drives that resulted in 52 total points for Tar Heel opponents. In six of those games, Tar Heel opponents scored points resulting from discipline penalties that made up the difference in the final score.

Against Wake Forest in 2012, three personal fouls and a facemask penalty resulted in 14 Demon Deacon points; Carolina lost by one. Later that year, an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Kevin Reddick extended a Duke touchdown drive; Carolina lost to the Blue Devils by four. The following season, Russell Bodine was called for unsportsmanlike conduct against Duke, turning third and 2 at the 9 into third and 17 at the 24; the Tar Heels settled for a field goal and lost by two.

At Notre Dame in 2014, the Tar Heels put up a valiant effort in a 7-point loss. But had Norkeithus Otis not committed a personal foul to give the Irish 15 yards on their go-ahead touchdown drive, the game might not just have been a moral victory. In 2016, Carolina lost at Duke by a single point; three facemask penalties and an unsportsmanlike conduct call resulted in 14(!) Blue Devil points. And in the Sun Bowl, Carolina lost by two to Stanford; unsportsmanlike conduct on Andre Smith gave the Cardinal 15 yards on a drive that ended in a field goal. Three points.

And then there’s Dalton’s penalty, costly not only with regard to field position and scoreboard, but also in taking a key defensive tackle out of the game. This from the same player who threw a punch in the regular season finale against NC State last year.

Like I said above, football is not solitaire, and certainly there are plays and penalties that went the Tar Heels’ way that are just as crucial as those that didn’t. Larry Fedora can’t control what the other team does from a discipline standpoint, but he can influence his own. There have been far too many costly discipline penalties for a team that wants to be taken seriously in the national picture. A team can’t take the next step toward relevance if it keeps shooting itself in the foot.

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