After two comebacks to start the season with two improbable wins, North Carolina (2-1) finally dug a hole that was too deep to overcome against Wake Forest (3-0) Friday.
UNC went down 21-0 in the first half and 21-3 through three quarters in the first true road game of the season. The Tar Heel offense awoke in the fourth quarter, but the deficit was too great this time around as Carolina dropped its first game of the year in a nonconference matchup.
Friday’s game continued a trend of inconsistent play for a Tar Heel team that had overcome two 4th-quarter deficits to begin the year.
The Tar Heels hung around against South Carolina in the opener through three quarters before winning it in the fourth.
Against Miami, UNC started strong in the first quarter before losing its lead and coming back again in the final frame.
For a team that had won five combined games in the previous two seasons, Carolina can ill afford to take quarters off.
“We’re a great 4th quarter team,” Aaron Crawford said after the game. “But for us to be a great all-around team, we need to do it every down, every snap, every quarter and string it all together.”
Carolina, and especially freshman quarterback Sam Howell, looked lost in a first half in which the Tar Heels were completely shut down.
UNC was outgained 304-71, including 170-22 through the air as Carolina failed to convert a 3rd down in eight tries.
“I was playing like a true freshman early on in the game,” Howell said. “Hats off to our defense. They kept us in the whole entire game.”
Quarterback Jace Ruder, who played his first snaps of the season in an effort to jump-start the offense, ran for 21 yards and picked up one of UNC’s two first downs of the half.
Running back Javonte Williams fumbled deep inside Tar Heel territory set up the first of two Jamie Newman rushing touchdowns for Wake Forest. Sage Surratt, brother of UNC linebacker Chazz Surratt, torched Carolina on a 51-yard touchdown reception en route to 169 yards, a career high.
“We thought we had better players,” linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “We thought we were the better team coming in. I think we just came in a little hesitant.
The script was flipped in the second half, though, as UNC’s defense held Wake Forest to 3 points and Howell settled in.
Michael Carter, who led the team with 96 rushing yards, took a swing pass from Howell 11 yards to the end zone to cut the Tar Heel deficit to 21-10. Then Dyami Brown, whose 84 receiving yards led the team, reeled in a 17-yard touchdown pass, his third TD catch of the year. Tight end Garrett Walston, who filled in for an injured Carl Tucker, made his only catch of the game to complete a two-point conversion and cut the deficit to 21-18 with 6:09 left.
“We fought ‘til the end,” safety Myles Dorn said. “We fought ‘til the last snap. We just ran out of time.”
Wake Forest used a 12-play, 5-minute drive aided by missed tackles and a key 3rd-down conversion to force UNC to burn its timeouts and push the lead to 24-18 with 1:09 remaining after a Nick Sciba 32-yard field goal.
Two Howell QB scrambles, including a catch-and-run off his own tipped pass, set up 4th-and-1 with the clock ticking under 10 seconds.
Carter then picked up the first down, but followed his blocks downfield instead of heading out of bounds, and referees ruled his forward progress was stopped inbounds at the Wake Forest 42, and the game ended.
“I felt like we just ran out of time,” Carter, who admitted he wasn’t aware of the situation on the last play, said. “But that’s part of the game. You run out of time. I’m excited for the challenge of how we’ll respond.
The next opportunity for UNC to respond will be against Appalachian State at home on Saturday, where the Tar Heels will try to finally piece together all four quarters.
Header photo by Smith Hardy