CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina fans were promised a fast, fun offense that would score freighters full of points, and the Tar Heels faithful saw one Saturday.
It just happened to play for East Carolina.
North Carolina was embarrassed at home, 55-31, by its in-state rivals, ECU’s first win at Kenan Stadium in nearly 40 years.
North Carolina fell to 1-3 on the season, and several Tar Heels players said the humbling loss to their non-automatic-qualifier neighbors revealed a bigger problem with the team: Right now, it’s fractured.
“I don’t think we’re playing as a team,” left tackle James Hurst said.
“We’re still, like, separated a little bit. When we come together as one, we’ll start changing,” wide receiver Quinshad Davis said.
“I think when adversity hits, we’re not responding accordingly,” quarterback Bryn Renner said.
The man in charge of it all, coach Larry Fedora, was as blunt as usual.
“We’ve got, as I’ve said before, a long way to go,” he said.
The Pirates rolled up more than 600 yards of offense and ran 101 plays, the most a North Carolina defense ever has allowed.
East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden accounted for six touchdowns. East Carolina running back Vintavious Cooper scorched the UNC defense for 256 yards of total offense and a career-high 186 rushing yards.
The Pirates took a 35-10 lead on their first possession of the second half, and with a lifeless North Carolina defense showing hardly any signs of resistance, many Carolina-blue clad supporters began heading for the exits.
Running back A.J. Blue went as far as to suggest the team didn’t take East Carolina seriously.
“Definitely not a lot of passion, definitely not a lot of energy,” Blue said of the Tar Heels’ performance. “Sometimes you don’t have to be as talented as a team to win, you just have to have energy and passion, and that’s what we lacked (Saturday).”
North Carolina’s offense recovered to score 21 points in the second half, but with the Pirates far in front, it became a moot point.
The North Carolina offensive players wouldn’t blame the defense.
“Last week, the defense, in my opinion, goes out there and plays a great game against Georgia Tech and the offense doesn’t get it done,” Hurst said. “This week, the defense will tell you that they didn’t play a good game and the offense put some points up there.
“Until we start playing as a team, we’re not going to win the games we should.”
The positive for North Carolina is that it has time to change.
It is only one game into its ACC schedule, and the goal of winning the conference’s Coastal Division still is within reach.
But first, as Davis said, the team has to begin playing as a unit.
“We still got all the goals ahead of us,” Davis said. “We’re not out of the ACC or nothing like that. We just gotta bring the team together and come together as one.”
For such a change to happen, the North Carolina players pointed to themselves. Hurst said, “the trust, right now, just isn’t there,” and until it is, North Carolina can’t expect to beat good teams.
Blue said North Carolina has become complacent and questioned the desire of some its players.
“I think we just have to stop waiting for one man to make a play,” Blue said. “I think our guys have to step up to the plate and decide to make a play, and I think it ultimately comes from the locker room.
“The second you strap up your pads, you know whether you’re going to give it 100 percent or not. I think the lack of focus and the lack of preparation is the reason we didn’t have that energy and passion.”
Fedora, who promised that explosive offense upon being hired before the 2012 season, said he won’t change his hopes for North Carolina.
“My expectations aren’t going to change for this football team. They’re not going to change,” he said. “Whether we beat those expectations, I don’t know. But I can tell you this: We’re going to keep working extremely hard to meet those expectations. I’m not going to lower my expectations because of a poor performance. That’s not going to happen.”
North Carolina picks up ACC play again this week with a trip to Blacksburg, Va., to play Virginia Tech.
The Tar Heels’ first four games haven’t offered many positives, but Fedora said the tough circumstances will reveal the program’s character.
“Like I told them in (the locker room), we’re going to find out who we are,” Fedora said. “You find out about yourself when things are bad, and right now, they’re bad.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com