UNC cornerback M.J. Stewart scooped up the fumble and streaked down the field with the go-ahead touchdown in his sights, only to be brought back by the referees’ whistles. Stewart then chucked the ball downfield in frustration.
The officials correctly ruled Stewart had one foot out of bounds when he recovered the ball. Instead of an easy touchdown for the Tar Heels, Virginia kept possession and two plays later converted on a fourth and two, keeping its drive alive and the ball out of UNC’s hands.
Fedora saw this close call as simply another example of the “little things” not going UNC’s way, but Stewart blamed himself for being in the wrong place — albeit by just a few inches.
“I kind of knew I was close to the sideline but I thought I was in bounds,” he said. “That’s a missed big opportunity on my part. I’ve got to have a little better football IQ and know where I am on the field.”
Missed tackles also plagued the Tar Heels’ defense throughout the game, with none more glaring than the two on Olamide Zaccheaus’ 81-yard catch-and-run touchdown to give Virginia the lead for good at the start of the fourth quarter.
After catching a short out route from quarterback Kurt Benkert, Zaccheaus broke free from safety Myles Dorn’s attempt, and then shrugged off Stewart as he dashed down the sideline and into the end zone.
Safety J.K. Britt didn’t make excuses for the defense allowing another of what it calls “catastrophic plays,” which have become commonplace this season.
“We just have to tackle,” he said. “We had a couple guys in position to make the play, and they just didn’t make it.”
Despite these defensive miscues, the Tar Heels still had an opportunity to win, driving in Virginia territory with under two minutes left. But UNC came up short once again when quarterback Brandon Harris was sacked on fourth and eight, effectively ending the game.
Harris was brought down by his facemask, but the play went uncalled. Neither Fedora nor Harris blamed the officials for missing the penalty, but the no-call served as yet another tough break against UNC.
“I don’t think it’s my job to question that,” Harris said. “If they missed it, they missed it.”
Fedora praised his players for their effort and attitude. But he also knows, with a roster depleted by injuries, the Tar Heels need all the help they can get.
"There is no margin of error for this team right now,” he said. “It kills me that I can’t help get them over the hump.”
In a season in which UNC seems unable to catch a break, Saturday’s loss served as yet another reminder of how much must go right to secure a victory.