CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina coach Larry Fedora is trying to solve a penalty problem entering Atlantic Coast Conference play.
The Tar Heels are one of the nation’s most penalized teams heading into Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh. They’re coming off a game in which they were called for five unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, leaving Fedora irked after an easy win that included the season’s best performance by first-year starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
“I talked to the entire team,” Fedora said. “It’s unacceptable and we’re going to deal with it, and hopefully our guys will play smarter.”
UNC (2-1) ranks 115th nationally by averaging 85.7 penalty yards per game and 13th in the 14-team ACC ahead of only No. 13 Florida State. The Tar Heels started with 13 penalties for 101 yards in the opening loss to Georgia, a total that included an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Fedora while angrily reacting to a call. Two weeks later, UNC had another flag-heavy game with 10 penalties for 110 yards in a 56-28 win against James Madison of the Championship Subdivision.
That included 75 yards in penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties — three after touchdowns by either team — against the Dukes, with defensive tackle Jalen Dalton picking up two while cornerback Des Lawrence, receiver Austin Proehl and defensive end Tyler Powell each had one. Fedora quickly brought up the penalties during his postgame comments without being asked by reporters, saying he could understand some penalties while trying to make a play but “we’re not going to screw up after the whistle.”
Fedora promised the team would address it immediately, but he didn’t get into specifics as to how. He said Monday that while there weren’t extra conditioning drills for the team, there was what he only described as “positive reinforcement” to deal with penalties caused by “frustration and selfishness.”
Still, this isn’t a new issue during Fedora’s five-year tenure.
The Tar Heels ranked last in the ACC with an average of about 64 penalty yards per game during each of his first two seasons in 2012 and 2013. They were 13th in 2014 and ranking among the nation’s worst in all three seasons.
Things changed last year, when the Tar Heels did a better job of avoiding mistakes and rose to fifth in the ACC (36th nationally) by cutting that average to around 46 yards. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that they matched a program record with 11 wins last season, too.
To do it again, the Tar Heels know they have to stop the 2016 backslide.
“As leaders of the team, we’re definitely focused on that, that we can’t have that because it’s going to cost our team down the road,” Trubisky said. “That’s just not who we want to be.”