After 62 offensive plays, a North Carolina football game again came down to just one.
In the season opener, UNC sacked South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley on his Hail Mary attempt to win. The week after that, Miami kicker Bubba Baxa missed a 49-yard field goal that would’ve tied the game. In the following game against Wake Forest, Michael Carter and UNC ran out of time (or not) down six. And, last week, Carolina kicker Noah Ruggles had his 56-yard field goal attempt blocked against Appalachian State.
As it turned out this week, the play was a two-point conversion attempt against the No. 1 team in the country in Clemson.
While Sam Howell sprinted right on the option, he was three yards from ending the nation’s longest active winning streak at 19.
When he was swarmed by Tiger defenders short of the goal line, UNC’s attempt at its first win over a top-ranked team was also stopped tantalizingly close.
And, after 60 minutes of giving the best team in college football all it could handle, Carolina came a play – and a point – short in the 20-21 loss.
Or did it?
“You can say it was the last play that changed the game, but actually so many there were so many plays throughout the day that could’ve changed the game,” senior safety Myles Dorn said after the game. “You never know which one it is.”
North Carolina, especially its defense, seemed to treat each play as the most important one that against the defending national champions.
UNC held an offense that entered the game averaging 524.8 yards per game to just 331 and a team that had scored at least 24 points in 18 straight games to 21.
“Everything they did out there today, Coach Bateman had it to a T,” sophomore linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “I just hope everybody on the team looks at this and sees how good we can actually be.”
The high potential of a young UNC team that has been up and down all year again flashed.
The Tar Heel rushing attack found holes in a ferocious Tiger defense en route to 146 rushing yards, including 99 from Michael Carter.
Freshman quarterback Sam Howell, while not statistically impressive (144 yards, 2 TD’s), played mistake-free football against a team that saw its eight-game interception streak snapped.
And Chazz Surratt, the quarterback-converted linebacker, continued to impress in a 7-tackle, 1-sack game.
“This shows us what we can be,” coach Mack Brown said. “We could’ve very easily been 5-0.”
But, after five down-to-the-wire games, UNC is 2-3 entering the heart of its ACC schedule with a trip to Georgia Tech up next.
And, as Surratt said after the game, “We don’t take any moral victories around here.”
So as Carolina tries to get to a bowl game for the first time in two years, it will have to follow the advice of Dorn, who talked about the importance of every snap, not just the final one.
“Play every play like it’s your last, from start to finish.”
Header photo by Smith Hardy.