After last season’s 3-9 campaign, head coach Larry Fedora probably thought his Tar Heels had seen every sort of tough loss imaginable.
But under the lights at Kenan Stadium on Saturday night, UNC (1-4, 1-2 ACC) found another way to lose — this time out-gaining Virginia Tech (4-2, 3-0 ACC) by 522 yards to 375 and still losing 22-19.
Here’s three things that stood out from the Tar Heels’ tight loss on Saturday:
Red Zone Woes
North Carolina moved the ball with relative ease between the 20s on Saturday. The Tar Heels reached the Virginia Tech 26-yard line on nine different drives, including seven red zone trips.
But UNC couldn’t take advantage of its opportunities and failed to punch it in on six of its seven red zone visits. Kicker Freeman Jones attempted six field goals on the night, tying a UNC record also held by Josh McGee and Clint Gwaltney. Jones only made four of his six attempts, missing from 43 yards and from 32. Those two misses proved costly in a three-point game.
The Tar Heels’ costliest red zone miscue came from Michael Carter in the fourth quarter. With UNC leading by five and just over six minutes left, Carter coughed the ball up at the one yard-line. Virginia Tech’s Jovonn Quillen recovered and the Hokies promptly drove 98 yards to take the lead with just 19 seconds left in the game.
Carter’s fumble marred an otherwise spectacular performance from the sophomore running back. He gained 165 yards on 18 carries thanks to a pair of 49-yard runs and another 29-yard scamper. Carter showed speed and elusiveness in the open field and also managed to grind out tough yards when the Tar Heels needed first downs. Yet Carter’s lasting image from the game will be the ball popping out of his arms straight to the Virginia Tech defense.
Carter said the Tar Heels’ failures came from “self inflicted wounds,” taking much of the blame on himself.
“Three false starts in a row, two fumbles — small stuff,” he said. ”We gotta be keying on the details and put more emphasis on the details.”
For the first 54 minutes of Saturday’s game, UNC’s defense put together its best performance of the season. With defensive linemen Aaron Crawford and Malik Carney back from injury and suspension, respectively, the Tar Heels’ front caused the Hokies problems all night.
Carney and defensive tackle Jason Strowbridge each sacked Hokies quarterback Ryan Willis twice and generally created mayhem in the Virginia Tech backfield.
“It’s the first time we’ve had those guys out there together,” Fedora said of the defensive line. “So it was nice to have those guys together.”
That pressure also made life easier for UNC’s linebackers and secondary, as safety J.K. Britt and cornerback Patrice Rene both made interceptions to stall Hokies drives while linebacker Cole Holcomb recorded nine tackles.
But with the game going down to the wire and Virginia Tech backed up on its own 2-yard line, the Tar Heels’ defense simply couldn’t get off the field. The Hokies converted four third downs on their 18-play drive and managed to squeeze out a huge fourth down conversion when Willis escaped pressure to scramble for 12 yards on fourth-and-nine.
The defensive line pressured Willis on the play, but the redshirt junior managed to escape the pocket and earn a new set of downs.
“I just stepped a little bit over too far and he got out of the pocket,” Strowbridge said.
Willis converted one more third down with a seven yard draw to reach the UNC one yard-line before he hit tight end Dalton Keene for the game-winning touchdown.
As the Hokies continued to grind away, UNC seemed visibly slower — unable to close out the plays it had handled in the previous three quarters.
“It’s a 17, 18 play drive. Of course there’s a little bit of fatigue,” Malik Carney said. ”But a game like that with only a few minutes left, you’ve gotta find a way to get it done. It doesn’t matter how tired you are that’s what we play for.”
No Clarity at Quarterback
When Chazz Surratt was ruled out earlier this week for the rest of the season with a torn ligament in his wrist, the Tar Heels’ quarterback competition between Surratt and Nathan Elliott finally seemed settled.
Enter, Cade Fortin.
The true freshman found out Thursday afternoon that he would be making his first start against Virginia Tech and he was solid in his debut. Fortin looked comfortable in in the pocket and avoided any disastrous rookie errors, completing 10 of his 18 passes for 97 yard and adding 44 yards on the ground.
“He’s very poised,” Fedora said of Fortin. “There were not too many times where I thought he was worried about the rush. He really did a good job of taking care of the football.”
Fortin opened up his passing more as the game went on, racking up 89 yards through the air in the second quarter. His best throw came on a deep ball to a wide open Dazz Newsome, who dropped what likely would have been an 85-yard touchdown catch.
Fortin didn’t last beyond the second quarter though, as he got crunched on a red zone scramble late in the second quarter and injured his leg. He needed help from trainers to walk off the field and spent the second half on the sideline in sweatpants with his pads off.
Elliott had one of his best performances of the season coming on in relief to start the second half. He took the Tar Heels down the field on his first drive, capping the possession with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Ratliff-Williams. The junior ended the night 11 of 15 for 147 yards and the Tar Heels’ only touchdown.
Newsome and Ratliff-Williams also attempted one pass each — because, why not?
Newsome hit Carl Tucker for 43 yards on a reverse pass in the second quarter, while Ratliff-Williams’ wobbly attempt to Elliott fell incomplete in the third quarter.
In classic Fedora fashion, the UNC coach refused to speculate on Fortin’s health or who would start next week when the Tar Heels travel to Syracuse.