Tar Heels lose game and their cool, and one is more worrisome than the other

It took a bad call on fourth down in the end zone, one that probably didn’t cost North Carolina the game even if it might have felt that way at the time, but Mack Brown finally snapped.

He tore off his hat and stormed onto the field, dragging his headset behind him on the turf, angry as any UNC fan forced to watch the Tar Heels on defense these past two seasons. He earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his troubles — the first of his 34 years, both he and his wife believe — and getting his money’s worth on it even if it was only worth a yard.

“I think everybody knows I’m going to try to do what’s right and I’m going to try to say what’s right and I’m passionate and I want to win,” Brown said.

Whether it was truly pass interference on Cedric Gray or not, and Brown certainly felt it was the latter, still pointing at the video board long after it had moved on to the promotions and advertisements that are the background music of modern college football, it didn’t really matter.

That play may have been the closest North Carolina’s defense came to stopping Notre Dame when it mattered, but the Tar Heels were already down 17 at that point, and they gave the Irish so many other opportunities in what ended up a 45-32 loss.

Forget for a moment, how North Carolina has been flirting with disaster all season, dodging trees and mousetraps and smoldering sticks of dynamite only to run smack into the side of a mountain like Wile E. Coyote chasing Roadrunner. The nightmare of last season is never far away, lurking in the shadows. Now, it gets worse: Everybody’s losing their cool. It wasn’t just Brown.

At one point in the fourth quarter, the UNC defense took three penalties on four plays — including consecutive personal fouls, late hits out of bounds — and teammates Tony Grimes and Noah Taylor had to be separated from each other after the first.

Grimes shoved Notre Dame running back Audric Esteme into the replay monitor and then the kicking net well out of bounds. Taylor stepped in and said something to Grimes, and the two exchanged words and then at least one shove before they were pulled apart.

“Guys are passionate about the sport. Things got a little chippy,” Gray said. “But we’ll handle that in the team.”

On the next play, on the opposite sideline, Ray Vohasek was called for the same thing. Two plays later, UNC committed its second pass interference penalty in the end zone, and there was no doubt about this one. (North Carolina’s sixth personal foul of the game, for spinning the ball after a garbage-time touchdown, was a soft call that inflated the numbers much like that score did.)

“We’ve asked them to be a player-led team,” Brown said. “We’ve asked them to push each other. We’ve asked them to call on each other. I’ve seen coaches get in fights on the sideline. This is really important. And if it’s not working well, you want to fight your guts out to make sure everybody understands you’re doing the best you can do.”

He added: “Really and truly, that was called passion in a lot of cases.”

What else can you say about the UNC defense at this point? It makes a mockery of recruiting rankings and itself in equal measure. Maybe Jay Bateman, fired in the offseason, wasn’t the problem after all. The Tar Heels brought back Gene Chizik, who worked miracles in 2014, but if anything the situation has gotten worse.

The most memorable highlight of the Notre Dame season up to this point had been a clip of the Irish offensive coordinator screaming “do your (expletive) job” into a telephone at the same second-string quarterback the Tar Heels turned into a dark-horse Heisman candidate on Saturday.

Their defensive line was absolutely manhandled by the Irish, their linebackers perpetually confused — Logan Diggs was left literally uncovered for the 29-yard touchdown that made it 31-14 after they sold out on the run fake — and their secondary unable to tackle in space.

There’s nothing new about any of that. Given the way some of their games have gone, it felt like the Tar Heels were 3-0 thanks to an accounting error. In this one, the emotional collapse in the second half suggested that the problems run far deeper than Xs and Os, frustration that had been held back bursting through seams.

“Very disappointed,” Gray said.

“We can’t blame it all on the defense,” said Josh Downs, back in the lineup with a pair of touchdown catches. “It’s not all on them.”

If it was a bad day in Chapel Hill, it was a disastrous day for the ACC at large. Not only did North Carolina make Notre Dame look like an unstoppable juggernaut as the Irish won its 25th straight psuedo-ACC regular-season game, Miami was flat-out embarrassed by Middle Tennessee State, Duke lost the basketball battle at Kansas and Georgia Tech was outclassed by Central Florida.

Throw in Virginia Tech’s loss to West Virginia on Thursday, and the ACC went 1-5 against nonconference FBS opponents going into Saturday night’s N.C. State game against UConn. Surely the ACC can count on that one.

It can’t count on North Carolina. Brown’s return to Chapel Hill started so brightly but all of the problems that surfaced last season appear unsolved. The Tar Heels were probably lucky to be 3-0, and it all came crashing down around them Saturday. A lot of unpaid bills came due at once.

Watching the Tar Heels lose their cool and their unblemished record in a game that should have been far more competitive than it was makes you wonder whether they can pull it together in the ACC. If they’re frustrated now, what’s it going to be like if they’re still playing like this when it really matters?

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