In last week’s 28-20 loss at Georgia Tech, Bryn Renner connected with Ryan Switzer for an 82-yard touchdown pass play only to have it negated by a holding penalty. The Tar Heels also committed a pair of defensive penalties on fourth down to keep Yellow Jacket drives alive.
On Saturday, UNC’s penalty situation was even more catastrophic in its 55-31 loss to East Carolina.
Trailing 7-0, the Tar Heels marched to ECU’s 36-yard line. A Caleb Peterson holding penalty ultimately resulted in UNC punting on 3rd-and-17. On UNC’s next possession, Kendrick Singleton amplified Renner’s interception by committing a personal foul on the return, giving ECU the ball near midfield to jumpstart the Pirates’ second touchdown drive. Defensive end Kareem Martin added a roughing-the-passer penalty seven plays later to set up a 1st-and-goal at the 7.
UNC appeared to answer on its ensuing drive as Renner connected with A.J. Blue on a screen pass for a 35-yard touchdown, but an illegal block penalty on Peterson erased the score. The Tar Heels settled for a 21-yard Thomas Moore field goal to cut their deficit to 14-3.
Down 21-3, a block in the back wiped out T.J. Thorpe’s 55-yard kickoff return. And on ECU’s next drive, Norkeithus Otis added a personal foul of his own at the goal line to set up a 1st-and-goal at the 2. ECU capitalized three plays later to take a 28-10 lead into halftime.
Malik Simmons was flagged for pass interference down the right sideline on ECU’s opening drive of the second half to move the Pirates into UNC territory. Simmons was flagged for a second pass interference call at the goal line on ECU’s next possession, but that penalty was declined.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters during his postgame press conference that his team was committing too many penalties, but was unable to say why they occurred.
“I’d have to look at the penalties and see exactly what happened and why they happened,” Fedora said. “I can tell you this, there’s no excuse for personal fouls, no matter what happens in a game.”
In all, UNC committed nine penalties for 94 yards, including four personal fouls. Senior offensive tackle James Hurst said he appreciated his teammates playing with fire, but not when it crosses the line to 15-yard penalties.
“It’s good to have those guys fighting for everybody, but at the same time, it can’t be after the whistle and it can’t be dirty or cheap,” Hurst said. “It’s tough to calm those guys down, but at the same time, that’s on them. They’ve got to be smart.
“They’ve got to understand the situation and understand that if you get hit and you punch back, it’s going to be you that gets the penalty. That’s really maturity and understanding the game of football.”
The Tar Heels also committed eight penalties for 57 yards against Georgia Tech, which is not far off Larry Fedora’s career averages as a head coach. In 69 games, Fedora’s teams have averaged 7.6 penalties and 68.7 penalty yards per contest.
His up-tempo preference skews those numbers a bit. In 2012, UNC finished nine penalties short of the school record set in 2010 (99), but averaged a penalty every 10.0 plays compared to one every 8.7 plays in ’10.
Through four games this season, UNC is averaging 6.8 penalties and 64 penalty yards per game. The Tar Heels are committing a penalty every 10.7 plays.
More troubling this season, however, is that UNC’s margin of error is significantly smaller than last season’s squad that boasted one of the country’s top offenses.