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The Daily Tar Heel

Deacons' Comeback Rolls Over UNC

Wearing a red button-down shirt, blue jeans, a gold chain around his neck and sneakers, he had removed any evidence that he was North Carolina's starting quarterback that day.

The redshirt freshman took the white towel he was holding in his hands and whipped it over his left shoulder before disappearing through a side door.

"Coach," Durant said to UNC's John Bunting in his office Thursday, five days after going home after the death of his stepmother, "life goes on."

And so, too -- if they are to keep their postseason hopes from slipping out the door -- must it now go on for the Tar Heels.

With an 8-4 season and a Peach Bowl invitation, at least, seemingly theirs for the taking, they lost their nerve on defense and squandered a 24-point halftime lead, falling to Wake Forest 32-31 in front of 53,000 at Kenan Stadium on Saturday.

Durant, who started despite his recent loss and having missed nearly an entire week of practice, threw four touchdowns, three of them in the first half.

But the UNC defense, which had vowed to make amends for its lackluster play last week against Georgia Tech, was left searching for answers after surrendering 235 total yards in the second half.

Bunting called it "perhaps the most complete collapse I've ever been around."

"I've never seen anything like that before in my life," Bunting said. "And I'm absolutely shocked by it. There are absolutely no excuses."

His players didn't try to make any, either.

"I don't know what to say because this is the second week in a row that the defense hasn't really played well," said linebacker Quincy Monk. "It's just tough to take right now."

With the loss, the Tar Heels' postseason hopes got a bit more complicated.

"This really throws it up in the air," said Peach Bowl representative Bob Hovater, who attended the game. "It was probably clearer before this game than it is now."

Still, UNC (5-5, 4-3 in the ACC) can put itself in line for the Peach Bowl with a win against Duke and a N.C. State loss to Maryland. A Wolfpack victory could drop the Tar Heels to a Seattle Bowl bid.

"We just lost a lot of things we were playing for," said defensive tackle Ryan Sims. "A January bowl, we just lost that. We have to, basically, play to get in a bowl now. We're scrapping to get in a bowl."

For pointers on scrappy play, the Tar Heels need only watch the second half Wake Forest (5-4, 3-4) played Saturday.

Trailing 24-0 at intermission, the Demon Deacons began churning out long drives that wore down UNC's defense and kept its offense off the field.

When UNC did have the ball, Wake pressured Durant frequently with blitzes. Durant, whose 361 passing yards, four touchdown passes, 24 completions and 75-yard TD pass to Sam Aiken all set UNC single-game freshman records, was held to 97 yards in the second half.

"I haven't seen them blitz like that," Bunting said. "They bring everybody. And that's risk-taking. You've got to hurt them when they take those risks, and for whatever reason, we didn't."

But UNC knew what to expect from Wake's offense, with motions and trick plays galore. The Tar Heels stuffed the nation's 11th-best rush offense in the first half, holding the Deacons to 69 yards, but unfocused play ruined them in the second.

Eight plays after a UNC fumble, Wake wideout John Stone came from the right side on an end-around and went 11 yards for Wake's first touchdown with 9:19 left in the third quarter.

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The Deacons then went back to the end-around on their next drive, as wideout Fabian Davis dove in for a 5-yard TD that sliced the Tar Heels' lead to

24-14 with 4:01 remaining in the third.

Durant guided UNC on a 12-play,

80-yard drive, capping it with a 12-yard strike to Zach Hilton, but Wake quarterback James MacPherson answered with an 80-yard touchdown drive of his own.

A 42-yard Wake field goal -- after the Tar Heels declined a holding penalty -- on its next drive cut the lead to a touchdown with 5:56 to go in the game.

UNC then went three-and-out, when deep snapper Greg Warren sent the ball over the head of punter John Lafferty and through the back of the end zone.

Safety. UNC 31, Wake 26 -- 4:59 left in the game.

Wake took over on its own 41 after the ensuing free kick and ran through UNC's defense for its first lead of the game. Wake was helped by a 10-yard penalty, which was tacked on to a 15-yard run by Macpherson. He then kept the ball for a

1-yard TD with 1:17 to go in the game.

The Deacs failed on the two-point conversion but had their first lead of the game 32-31.

Still, the Tar Heels looked like they could overcome and pull out a win.

Durant hit Kory Bailey three straight times to move UNC to the Wake 47.

But Wake's Quintin Williams came in on a blitz, jarring the ball out of Durant's hand, which was cocked to throw. Caron Bracy recovered the ball at the UNC 38.

"I felt like my arm was going forward," said Durant, who was looking for Bailey on the right side. "I felt like he hit me as I was letting go of the ball.

"But the ref saw otherwise. You can't argue with that."

Nor could anyone argue with Bunting's postgame message to his team.

"Don't just think it's going to come easily to you," Bunting said. "It doesn't happen that way. You've got to play the whole game. And hopefully somebody will learn something from that."

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.