Larry Fedora’s postgame press conferences write themselves at this point. He opens by crediting the winning head coach, then praises his players’ efforts and sidesteps questions about the injuries of the day.
After North Carolina’s 38-28 loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday, the Tar Heel coach followed much of the same script. But his voice seemed hoarser and more beleaguered — beaten down by the now-weekly occurrence of another one that got away.
“[It’s] frustrating, if you want it in a word. These guys are battling and I haven’t put them in a position to get over the top.”
The Tar Heels (1-7, 1-5 ACC) are 1-3 this year in one-score games, though Saturday’s loss fell outside of that range thanks to Nathan Elliott’s third and final interception, which gave the Yellow Jackets (5-4, 3-3 ACC) possession in field goal range.
Elliott’s day in many ways mirrored the Tar Heels’ game overall. He struggled early and was replaced by true freshman Jace Ruder.
“I just felt like it was the right time,” Fedora said of plugging in Ruder. ”We just needed a spark on offense, we didn’t have anything going.”
Ruder led UNC to 10 points in his two drives under center, but he left after throwing a touchdown to Carl Tucker in the third quarter with an injured left shoulder. Ruder finished 4-5 for 80 yards and a touchdown and added 27 yards on the ground.
Ruder joined Chazz Surratt and Cade Fortin as the third UNC quarterback to fall victim to injury this season, with all three being relieved by Elliott, who re-entered with the Tar Heels trailing 28-17 in the third and quickly engineered a pair of scoring drives to draw level at 28 with 12:35 left in the game.
But UNC’s next two drives were each cut short by interceptions from Elliott on the Tar Heels’ side of the field. Georgia Tech scored a touchdown with three minutes left to take the lead and added a field goal in the final minute to put the game on ice.
“It’s obviously not how we wanted it to go,” Elliott said. “I take full responsibility for this one, I gotta make more plays.”
Nearly every Tar Heel player that spoke with the media after the game lamented the team being just one play away from victory, just as they had after blown leads against Virginia Tech and Syracuse last month.
“We’ve lost like this before,” said junior safety Myles Dorn. “Virginia Tech we felt like we had it, Syracuse same way. But we just gotta find a way to get over the hump.”
Like all of the Tar Heels’ close losses, there were still bright spots. When he was healthy, Ruder showed flashes of his potential, Anthony Ratliff-Williams gathered over 100 yards receiving and Michael Carter led the rushing attack with 68 yards — including a 46-yard sideline scamper that was questionably spotted just short of the end zone.
The defense handled Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack fairly well. Malik Carney set the tone on the Yellow Jackets’ first drive by stripping the ball from Jerry Howard and returning the fumble for a 20-yard touchdown. Cole Holcomb contributed 22 tackles and three forced fumbles as well, both career highs.
“He brings it everyday,” Carney said of Holcomb. “I’m not surprised he had a career high day. Cole’s a guy that works hard. He walked on, he earned his scholarship and I feel it was well-deserved.”
But the Yellow Jackets did enough to win, gashing UNC for 461 yards on the ground and adding an 86-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter on quarterback Tobias Oliver’s first attempt.
With the score tied, and eight minutes on the clock, Georgia Tech moved 41 yards in nine plays to score the eventual winning touchdown, converting one 3rd-and-short and another 4th-and-1.
This team is not as bad as its 1-7 mark would indicate — it’s probably the best one-win team in college football. But that’s a title nobody on the team wants.
“We’re one play away from being a much better team, record-wise,” Carter said. “It’s just crazy every week.”