R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
GREENVILLE, N.C. — Could North Carolina’s big plays compensate for the Tar Heels’ ongoing issues with undisciplined and damaging big penalties?
You could ask that question many weeks, including Saturday, because Coach Larry Fedora’s teams have earned a reputation for both.
After producing a resounding no in an opening-week loss at California with few big plays, the Tar Heels nearly managed a positive answer — with a kicker — in the first half.
Then, their offense disappeared in the second half and East Carolina made its share of amazing catches for big plays as the Pirates rolled to a 41-19 victory.
A UNC defense that played well against Cal repeatedly faltered against the Pirates.
“I think you have to give their receivers credit because they made some very competitive catches,” Fedora said.
“They made some really nice plays. It’s not like those guys were wide open.”
Carolina has started consecutive seasons 0-2 for the first time since 2005 and 2006 and the grumbling from Tar Heels fans has started to get louder.
“You’ve got to handle it the same way you handle anything,” Fedora said of criticism directed at him.
“If you have a sound philosophy and you believe in what you’re doing, you’re working hard, and your guys are working hard, good things will happen. That’s the way you have to look at it.”
He said the mood of the team is about what you would expect.
“Nobody’s happy with it,” Fedora said.
“Everybody’s disappointed, as they should be. These guys work hard, put a lot into it and we didn’t get the job done. And, again, that’s on me.”
That’s on him, as well as the heat from fans.
It’s just the opposite for ECU coach Scottie Montgomery, who was coming off a home loss to FCS North Carolina A&T.
Even with a still-struggling Nathan Elliott overthrowing receivers and throwing into triple coverage, an improved offensive line produced the big plays the first half you’d expect from UNC’s offense.
That, and the pinpoint kicking from Freeman Jones, who kicked four field goals, helped UNC stay in the game despite the bad penalties.
“I thought at the beginning, the offense played well,” said Elliott, who was 22 of 38 for 219 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
“We just didn’t finish out when we got in the red zone. Came out with a lot of field goals. It’s very deflating.”
The red-zone failures in the first half kept UNC from cashing in a 48-yard run from Antonio Williams, a 28-yard pass play to Jordan Brown and pass plays of 25 and 32 yards to Anthony Ratliff-Williams.
Rontavius Groves added a 34-yard reception.
Elliott agreed that he must be more accurate.
“I’m pretty frustrated,” he said.
“But there’s no quit in this locker room, there’s no quit in this team.”
Considering Elliott’s performance, a mistake off the field — quarterback Chaz Surratt selling shoes — keeps getting costlier by the game.
He’s one of 10 suspended players who couldn’t play against ECU.
UNC’s offense sputtered with no big plays in the second half.
Already down by 16 points in the fourth quarter, Brown got stopped on a fourth-and-short attempt.
The game had already turned purple when Brown was stuffed again with the Pirates ahead by 19 points.
When UNC still was in the game in the first half, the Tar Heels defense had stopped an ECU drive.
But a personal foul penalty by Carolina defensive end Tyler Powell on third down kept the drive alive.
That drive produced a 1-yard touchdown run by ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers.
The Tar Heels went from 317 total first-half yards to 78 in the second half.
After seven penalties for 65 yards in the first half, UNC was flagged for no second-half penalties.
“Our guys did a much better job of playing smarter in the second half. But we can’t do that and have success,” Fedora said of the first-half penalties.
“We kept shooting ourselves in the foot, we kept getting penalties. Didn’t finish any drives off.”
The most damaging mistake that hurt the big-play potential was a first-half targeting call on Williams, a junior transfer.
He had 96 rushing yards in the first half, but his physical block ended his day early.
“I was just trying to make plays for my team and do what I could to help us,” Brown said of when Williams got ejected.
“And I guess they fed off of it.”
Fedora said that the game plan didn’t change without Williams.
“Jordon Brown came in for Antonio and did a good job; we just kind of lost our focus at that point for whatever reason,” Fedora said.
“That’s not the reason we lost the football game.”
He and the rest of the staff will be searching for reasons between now and Saturday’s home opener against Central Florida.
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