The Tar Heels countered their 15 penalties last week against Virginia Tech with a perfect 4-for-4 red zone performance (all touchdowns). On Saturday, UNC once against committed 15 penalties – one shy of the school record – for 140 yards, but the red zone efficiency was lacking.
That combination came up 24 yards short of a disastrous result for UNC.
North Carolina was in control of the game early, holding a 7-0 lead and lining up at Miami's eight-yard-line for a 3rd-and-7. Quarterback Bryn Renner had ample time in the pocket, but the junior forced a pass to Erik Highsmith in double coverage at the goal line. Miami linebacker Eddie Johnson slid underneath for the interception and returned it 25 yards.
On their next possession, the Tar Heels moved 56 yards in 13 plays, but stalled in the red zone with a run for no gain and two incomplete passes. Casey Barth trotted out for what appeared to be a routine 33-yard field goal attempt, but he missed it wide left.
Miami responded with a 12-play, 80-yard drive to tie the score at 7-7 on Mike James's 1-yard TD run. That score followed back-to-back substitution penalties on UNC for having too many men on the field, but that scenario should have never played out in the first place. Nine plays earlier, Romar Morris was flagged for a roughing the kicker penalty on a 4th-and-2 Miami punt.
"I'll just say that we need to continue getting better in that area," UNC head coach Larry Fedora said of the penalties during his postgame press conference. "I don't why it's happening. It's not like we're not emphasizing it in practice [or] still coaching the fundamentals. I don't know. I'm going to have to go back and evaluate each and every one and determine what the reasons are."
Fedora acknowledged in his postgame press conference that there's a fine line in stressing penalties without making his players step off the gas.
"We want our guys to be aggressive," Fedora said. "We want to be smart, fast and physical and you got to be able to play hard but still play smart. You have to be disciplined enough to not make those mistakes when you can't afford to."
The errors went beyond penalties and squandered red zone opportunities.
Holding a 15-14 lead late in the third quarter, Renner found Eric Ebron on a 3rd-and-7 in Miami territory. The sophomore tight end dropped the pass – one of several for Tar Heel receivers – forcing Barth out to connect on a 48-yard field goal attempt.
Barth drilled that kick, but missed a 43-yarder in the fourth quarter.
And instead of making Miami burn its final two timeouts with less than two minutes to play, North Carolina attempted two passes that fell incomplete on second and third down. After the punt, the Hurricanes needed to travel 83 yards for the game-winning score, but had 1:47 of clock and two timeouts in their pockets.
Fedora told reporters after the game that he "probably should have run it, looking back on it now."
North Carolina has committed 30 penalties for 266 yards in its last two games. Through the first six weeks of the college football season, 40 teams had committed less than 30 penalties in all of their games combined.
"We've just got to get more disciplined," Renner said. "It starts in practice. It starts with guys not getting as many holding penalties, personal fouls after the play… That really kills us. It puts us in [bad] situations. We could have iced the game a little bit if we don't have a holding there, but it's better to correct those after a win."
And factoring the pair of red zone appearances without scores, North Carolina has now failed to score on nine of its 38 trips (76.3) inside the 20 this season. That percentage is likely to keep UNC in the lower third of FBS programs in red zone efficiency.
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