Few things have been certain for North Carolina in an up-and-down adventure through four games, but two points have clearly emerged.
The Tar Heels will be at their absolute best in staging one fourth quarter rally after another and they’ll be at their absolute worst in the second quarter, digging the hole that they’ll eventually be forced to climb out of.
“It’s that second quarter that’s killing us and that makes no sense to me,” Carolina coach Mack Brown said on Monday. “I mean, it makes none; I’ve never seen a second quarter that’s as miserable as ours, so that’s the thing we’ve got to look at.”
For the past few weeks, coaches and players have talked about slow starts, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case.
The Tar Heels jumped to a 17-3 on Miami and scored just 17 seconds in against Appalachian State, and for the season, opponents have only outscored Carolina 33-27 in the first quarter.
After hanging around for 15 minutes, the bottom completely falls out in the second, with opponents holding a 41-13 scoring advantage. Carolina has led just one game at the half — 17-13 over Miami — while trailing South Carolina 13-6, Wake Forest 21-0 and App State 27-17.
Asked if he saw an explanation in the four second quarters, Brown appealed to outsiders.
“No,” he said. “If you’ve got one, ‘Please, anybody with suggestions, send ‘em to me.’ I think if we knew it, we’d correct it. For four weeks we haven’t…”
There’s not a glaring area that the Tar Heels are struggling; it’s everything — offense, defense, penalties, third downs and anything else that could possibly go wrong on a football field.
"I think when things have gone bad for us, we haven't responded very well,” defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said. “I think once we've settled them down and they've got back to playing the way we want to play and the way we talk about playing every day, then we've been pretty successful.”
It’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument for Carolina’s second quarters, as the offense has managed its lowest scoring output, fewest yards and worst passing performance while averaging four yards per play and converting 4 of 16 third-down attempts.
Despite the poor offensive performance, the Tar Heels have held onto the ball for 28 minutes, 49 seconds overall, meaning the defense hasn’t been overworked in second quarters, defending against 85 plays.
The problem has been that opponents are averaging 5.3 yards per snap as the Tar Heels have given up the most points, most yardage, most first downs and allowed third-down conversions on 6 of 14 attempts.
And when things have gone badly, Carolina has lost focus, committing six penalties that have cost the Tar Heels 53 yards — most of any quarter.
It was again where everything fell apart on Saturday as Carolina squandered its first drive of the second quarter when Sam Howell’s screen pass was tipped and intercepted by Demetrius Taylor. Four plays later, the Mountaineers punched in a touchdown to take a 20-7.
“This game was different than some of the others in that we're moving the football and we're doing some good things offensively and we turned it over,” Longo said. “Turning it over blew two of our drives in the first half, particularly the second quarter.”
As things went bad, Brown noticed the mood on the sideline changing, too.
“Coaches got down some in the first half, too,” he said. “I was on them; here’s adults getting down. I mean, ‘Come on, man; you’re supposed to be leading. You can’t get down.’ It’s part of the whole deal, it’s got to pick up and be positive. That’s the only way you can win football games.”
Having lost two straight with No. 1 Clemson coming to town on Saturday, Brown is at a loss for why his team can’t sustain its energy into the second quarter, but he’s hoping someone provides a spark soon because it’s just one of many areas he and his staff have to fix in a hurry.
“Our theme is ‘Be the one,’ well, ‘Be the one to make that stop, be the one to step up, be the one to excite them in the second quarter,’” he said. “But we’ve got so much stuff on us right now it’s hard to pull out the second quarter and say, ‘OK, where does this fit in priorities, because we’ve got a big list of stuff we’ve got to get fixed.’”