GREENVILLE, N.C. — With 5:02 left in the second quarter, the North Carolina football team started struggling to breathe.
The team had just been gut-punched by the ejection of running back Antonio Williams for targeting on a helmet-to-helmet hit that sent defensive back Colby Gore to the hospital. Williams — who rushed for 96 yards on six carries up to that point — had been a major part of the success.
At that moment, the life slowly began seeping out of the Tar Heels in their 41-19 loss to ECU.
“We lost our focus at that point for whatever reason,” head coach Larry Fedora said after the game. “But that’s not the reason that we lost a football game.”
The loss of UNC’s power back cannot alone explain what happened in the second half, yet the downward spiral that followed makes it an important moment. With the 5-11 210-pound back headed to the locker room, an offense that had been alive and well minutes ago was suddenly dying.
For most of the first half, the offense had the run-pass dynamic that was missing the week before against California. With Williams in the backfield, the rushing attack gashed the Pirates defense for big gains that included 48 yards on the second play of the game, a hard-fought 10 later that quarter and 30 more in the second quarter to set up the team's first touchdown of the game.
Nathan Elliott was the biggest beneficiary of the hard running up to that point. The quarterback was just 10-for-17 for 116 yards, but that’s all he had to be. The pressure was off him to move the ball, and as the team was competing in a tight 14-13 game, Williams was making his job a whole lot easier. Then, as quick as the junior transfer was ambling down the field, Elliott's crutch was gone.
"He’s a great running back, and he ran the ball well..." Elliott said. "Antonio being out was huge.”
Junior running back Jordon Brown tried to pick up the slack where Williams left off, rushing three times for 23 yards after the ejection and compiling 50 rushing yards for the half. The rest of the game, though, he couldn’t be quite as effective — rushing six more times for only nine yards.
“I was more surprised that we weren’t able to have the success that we wanted to because how well we were doing in the first half,” Brown said. “We’ve got to be more consistent.”
If the Tar Heels had the wind knocked out of them with five minutes left in the half, they were suffocating by the third quarter. The antidote, in the form of Freeman Jones for 13 points, wore off, and the team couldn't even muster a field goal the rest of the game, let alone a touchdown.
"You can’t make a living off of field goals," Elliott said. "We’ve got to put it in the end zone.”
But the team just couldn't do it.
Coming out of halftime, UNC punted three times in a row, holding the ball for less than two minutes in each drive, on average. Meanwhile, ECU put some distance from the Tar Heels with a three-play, 55-yard drive capped off by a 48-yard run to the house. The Tar Heels were gasping for air, but it wouldn't be found at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
By the time the fourth quarter began, the Tar Heels collapsed on offense and defense, and a pulse barely registered. The Pirates took a 35-19 lead to start the final period, while UNC embarrassed itself with two failed fourth-and-1 conversions in a row, moving only 18 yards total on those two drives.
With two final blows, a pair of field goals, the Tar Heels were put out of their misery. While they faded out of consciousness, the home crowd howled at what was taking place.
By the time true first-year quarterback Cade Fortin was brought into the game in the final minutes, UNC had already flatlined. Without Williams to offer any support to the team, it was strangled by a Pirate team picked to finish last in the East Division of the American Athletic Conference.
“Every loss is discouraging, believe me," Fedora said. "Every loss hurts."
But after this loss, when so much went wrong, it'll be hard for the team to catch its breath.
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