It took years of planning to bring football to Chapel Hill on Thursday night, and for a while, it was exactly the showcase North Carolina had arranged.
Picturesque Kenan Stadium was at the center of the college football world, thanks to ESPN coverage. Tar Heel legends dotted the sidelines, and the current generation was dominating on the field.
Then Florida State crashed that party, and UNC might have lost its chance to turn around its season.
After leading 24-6 in the third quarter, the Tar Heels squandered that advantage and then folded under the pressure of the FSU attack and the bright Thursday night lights. They eventually lost, 30-27.
The immediate impact is clear. UNC lost the football game and fell to 0-3 in the ACC. With each loss, the seven wins North Carolina needs to qualify for a bowl game seem like a taller task.
“That could have changed our whole season around,” senior corner Kendric Burney said. “It’s frustrating just because it could have changed our season from, you know, bottom of the ACC to on the rise. I had big hopes.”
But this loss goes beyond Xs and Os and conference standings.
“We talked about it all week — ‘Let’s go out here and shine on prime time,’” freshman linebacker Kevin Reddick said. “You’ve got to shine when the cameras are on you.”
There was no doubt that this game was different. A quick scan of the sidelines made that clear.
There was former star Lawrence Taylor, back after 29 years to take in the spectacle. There was Julius Peppers and Hilee Taylor and Richard Quinn.
And yes, there was Erin Andrews with her camera crew in tow.
It was just like Butch Davis had anticipated — the University of North Carolina and its football program were given a four-hour infomercial on national television.
“Thursday night football has become for college football the equivalent of Monday night for the professional league,” Davis said in a news conference Friday.
And it all came apart so quickly.
With about five minutes to play in the third quarter and an 11-point lead, quarterback T.J. Yates lofted a deep pass toward the left corner. But the throw went into double coverage, and Florida State’s Jamie Robinson came down with the interception at the two-yard line.
Twelve seconds later, Seminole wide receiver Rod Owens was streaking down the sideline, on his way to a momentum-swinging 98-yard touchdown catch — the longest in the history of Kenan Stadium.
From there, it was all Florida State.
FSU quarterback Christian Ponder torched the Tar Heel secondary, North Carolina’s offense stalled and cheers turned to boos in front of millions.
So what went wrong?
After the game, North Carolina players were throwing words around like “lack of focus,” “loss of composure,” and “miscommunication.” And then there were words like “frustrating” and “devastating.”
Yates summed it up in short.
“It just tears your heart out,” he said. “It just sucks.”
Yates will not soon forget the way this one ended. After throwing for just 20 yards in the second half against a pass defense that’s been downright lousy this year, Yates had one final shot at a Hail Mary.
But the pass would never leave his hand, as he was flattened by the Seminole pass rush. The final seconds ticked off, and the ESPN cameras followed the celebrating Seminoles to the east end of Kenan.
And Yates was left lying flat on the 38-yard line.
The Tar Heels, who are now 4-3 all time on Thursday nights, will get another shot at that stage next week. This time, it will be in Blacksburg, Va., showcased in front of the nation.
And the home of No. 14 Virginia Tech, happens to be one of the toughest places UNC will play all year.
In spite of the loss, North Carolina still had the opportunity to be featured on the national stage. Alumni, fans and recruits were still able to see the light blue end zones while the other 118 FBS teams waited for games on Saturday.
And in his mission to build the program, Davis took a step in the right direction. It just could have been a much more emphatic step.
“Everybody at this University fought to have this Thursday night here,” Yates said.
“It’s going to be tough getting over this.”
Contact the Sports Editor at email@example.com.
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