Bet you Bubba Cunningham would have delayed the game time if he had to do it all over again. It wasn’t TV that made the Tar Heels host Virginia Tech in the worst weather imaginable for an October afternoon. It was Carolina’s call all the way.
With the outer swirl of Hurricane Matthew set to hit the Triangle early Saturday, UNC could have postponed the kickoff until Saturday night or played on Sunday, when Matthew would have already moved on, the skies cleared and more fans would have come than the few thousand who braved the awful elements.
Cunningham said before the game, as the teams warmed up in driving rain and up-to-20 miles per hour wind, that he was on a conference call with ACC Commissioner John Swofford last Tuesday, plus the AD’s from Duke and N.C. State, which were also playing at home Saturday.
With the long-range forecast calling for Matthew’s eye to be well over the Atlantic Ocean by Saturday afternoon, they all agreed to go on as scheduled. Cunningham admitted before the Tar Heels up-chucked the 34-3 loss to the Hokies that he might have added a contingency to revisit his decision as late as Friday. He should have.
By then, Matthew had reversed course and was headed back inland, ready to dump six-plus inches of rain on the Triangle in less than 24 hours, turning a tough match-up into a bad one for Carolina. That’s when Cunningham should have said to head Coach Larry Fedora, “Let’s play Sunday. Both teams are here, TV is already set up, and maybe we’ll have a better crowd.”
Frankly, you would think the UNC brass had more savvy. It would have been a gutsy, unique decision but not above Bubba’s pay grade to wait for better weather and help his football team win a critical game and keep spectators coming to the game out of harm’s way.
State probably wanted to play in the monsoon that would help contain Notre Dame’s high-powered offense. It worked in the Wolfpack’s 10-3 win which consisted of two field goals and a blocked punt for a touchdown. Duke and Army were equally inept, and the Blue Devils won 13-6 in the drenched onslaught.
Here is how Carolina nearly drowned playing this game in a Hurricane:
- The Tar Heels are one of the most prolific passing teams in the country, led by record-setting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who had not thrown an interception all season. His first pass downfield sailed yards over the intended receiver’s head and his third was picked off by the Hokies; Trubisky later had another interception and fumbled on his way to, by far, his worst college game. Throwing footballs in a deluge doesn’t work very well for most QBs. The UNC junior had obvious trouble gripping and whipping the wet ball all day long and is no longer the most accurate passer in college football after his 13-for-33 day.
- Having the weather to hamstring Carolina’s offense played right into the game plan of Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who now could tell his “D” linemen to pin their ears back and improve their stats as the best third- (and now fourth-) down defense in the country. The Hokies held the Heels to Fedora-era low of 131 yards and 3 points. And Carolina could not really play smash-mouth in the downpour without bruising back Elijah Hood, who was not in uniform due to a concussion. He was one of three starters out of the lineup with injuries suffered last weekend in Tallahassee.
- The loss also dealt UNC a devastating blow to repeat as ACC Coastal Division champion, as Virginia Tech is now 2-0 and holds the tiebreaker over the Tar Heels (2-1), who visit another Coastal favorite Miami this week. The Hokies have a favorable conference schedule from here on out (at Syracuse, Pitt and Duke; home to Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia).
Seventeenth-ranked Carolina will tumble down, if not out of, the polls and have much of its fan base making the traditional October pivot toward basketball, which kicks off Friday night at the annual “Late Night with Roy.” The grid Heels can regain their attention, of course, by pulling off the same kind of upset they did at FSU the next afternoon against the 10th-ranked U, which lost a heartbreaker to the Seminoles on a blocked PAT Saturday night.
A close game early, the product of three turnovers that led to a 6-3 lead for Tech, became easier for the visitors and harder for the home team. Carolina recovered a fumble in the shadow of its goal line, but after Trubisky was sacked twice had to punt literally from the back of its end zone out to the UNC 40. A long lob pass to the 1-yard line and another for the TD made the deficit 13-3. Considering the conditions and how the Hokies play, it might as well have been 30-3 but was enough to chase away half the soaked souls who did show up.
Like the weather the Tar Heels got worse in the second half, turning the ball over repeatedly to Tech, which continued to execute like a light drizzle was falling. By the time the Hokies converted another Carolina cough-up to make it final at 34-3, the saturated defense was on the way to spending more than 13 minutes of the fourth quarter on the field. That’s how bad was UNC’s Fed Spread, which had never before gone without a touchdown and only once been held under 10 points.
Maybe Virginia Tech under first-year coach Justin Fuente is a better team. But surely Carolina would like to try it again on a dry day. Certainly, Cunningham wishes he had made that Plan B than watch one of 12 precious games go down the drain.