Blue told reporters during his postgame interview that UNC “definitely” took ECU lightly.
"The key word all day has been complacency,” the fifth-year senior running back said on Saturday. “I saw it earlier today. Just from the hotel, the bus ride over - the lack of focus. Guys talking about other things. It's ECU; nobody expects to lose to ECU, especially us. So the complacency was definitely there, the lack of focus was there.”
It was evident on the field. East Carolina rolled up 603 total yards of offense in crushing UNC, 55-31. The Pirates jumped out to a 35-10 lead early in the third quarter by dominating on both sides of the ball.
Everything that could go wrong for UNC did.
On Monday, head coach Larry Fedora indicated that Blue’s postgame speech to the team was “a good thing.”
“A.J.’s a leader on our football team,” Fedora said. “He’s trying to lead. He did a great job in the locker room after the game talking to our guys. I was very impressed with it. There wasn’t a whole lot for me to say after he talked.”
Fedora said that he didn’t see the letdown coming, citing several good days of practice during the week. He was surprised when told of Blue’s comments to the media about UNC taking ECU lightly.
“I didn’t see that going into the game,” Fedora said. “… If that happened, then put that on me. That shouldn’t happen. It doesn’t matter who you play. I’d be very disappointed if that was the situation.”
There were other Tar Heels, however, who were aware of the lackadaisical attitude entering the game.
“There were a lot of guys in the locker room who were jumping around and shouting, saying that they were ready to play and make plays and blow this team out,” wide receiver T.J. Thorpe said. “And for some of those guys, they had a lot of us fooled… Not saying that they were scared or anything, but they weren’t as ready as they thought they were as far as knowing the game plan and doing the things they have to do.”
Quarterback Bryn Renner agreed with Blue’s take on the situation and said Thursday’s practice “wasn’t very good.” He thought the team leaders had been able to rally the team enough on Friday to match the previous week’s effort level at Georgia Tech.
As bad as UNC’s offense was, the defense was even worse against ECU. The Tar Heels committed a whopping 37 missed assignments on 101 defensive snaps, according to cornerback Jabari Price, who added that six MA’s is what UNC tries to stay under for any given game.
With roughly five minutes to play in the second quarter, UNC’s defense lined up with nine players on the field. ECU tailback Vintavious Cooper took advantage with a 26-yard run up the middle.
“I wouldn’t say it’s on the coaches,” Price said when asked about the busted play. “I would say it’s a lack of focus by the guys on the sideline. If your package is being called, you have to go into the game. We can’t win a game with nine people. I’ve never seen it done in my life.”
While Middle Tennessee and East Carolina run similar offenses, the difference in effort level by the UNC defense was pretty clear on film, Price said. Senior defensive end Kareem Martin called a players-only meeting on Sunday afternoon to address the issues.
One of the talking points centered on how the Tar Heels played South Carolina and Georgia Tech with a fear of getting embarrassed that demanded focus during game week. UNC, however, was expected to win against East Carolina and the players bought into the pregame noise.
Even more intriguing is that associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning touched on that mindset prior to the ECU game.
“My fear is that we relax a little bit and think, ‘well, we’ve arrived’ and all of that stuff,” Koenning said following practice on Wednesday. “The good defenses I’ve been with, they don’t think that. So it’s my responsibility to make sure that we keep pressing. Some people do better with encouragement and some people just have to have their butt kicked and pushed and drug around.”
That mindset might be understandable if UNC was a top-ranked team playing a severely out-manned FCS opponent.
The reality, though, is that the Tar Heels entered Saturday’s in-state rivalry game with a 1-2 record and now are staring at the legitimate possibility of a 1-5 start with games against Virginia Tech and Miami on the horizon.