It was exactly the type of environment that breeds an upset.
With a week of rest under its belt following a bye, North Carolina was set to play its first night game at Kenan Memorial Stadium in almost three years. Cade Fortin, a previously unknown entity, was set for his first start at quarterback. Student seating was so full that event staff had to turn fans away at the gates. Kenan Memorial Stadium was optimistic.
On the first drive of the game, UNC (1-4, 1-2 ACC) did what it would do all night — shoot itself in the foot.
True first-year Fortin took his first snap and handed the ball off to Antonio Williams. Williams quickly picked up 10 yards, illuminating North Carolina’s strategy to attack a vulnerable Virginia Tech run defense, but fumbled at the 35-yard line.
Just like that, the Hokies had the ball.
That fumble was the first of what running back Michael Carter called "self-inflicted wounds." In nine trips to the 26-yard line or better, North Carolina scored only one touchdown.
"I think if my math is right, nine trips times seven, that's 63 points," Carter said. "If we score 63 points in that game, we win, by the way."
“It just takes one guy making one play in this game, and it’s a different ball game, and we come in here and we’re happy,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “But we didn’t make that play tonight.”
The Tar Heels had plenty of chances to make that one play but simply failed to convert. Over and over, UNC teed itself up with excellent field position, only to settle for a field goal or worse.
When North Carolina got the ball back following Virginia Tech’s opening touchdown, Carter broke off a 49-yard rush to bring the Tar Heels to the red zone for the first time. Yet, on second down from the 12-yard line, Fedora put in redshirt junior Nathan Elliott at quarterback.
On his first snap of the game, Elliott fumbled the snap and UNC lost six yards. The drive resulted in kicker Freeman Jones’ first of six field goal attempts on the night.
“We just didn’t capitalize,” Elliott said. “But we have to be better about that. We have to score more in the red zone.”
The mistakes kept coming.
In North Carolina’s last drive of the quarter, Fortin had a 40-yard rush, tiptoeing the sideline down to Virginia Tech’s 8-yard line. On the ensuing play, Carter punched it in and appeared to give UNC the lead. But a holding call from guard Nick Polino erased the score, and Jones trotted out for his second field goal of the night.
Set up with a big play, make a mistake in the red zone, rinse and repeat.
After Fortin went down at the end of the first half, Elliott stepped in for the rest of the game. Although he did a capable job, he completed 11 of 15 passes for 147 yards, it was the defense that kept UNC afloat.
The Tar Heels had nine total tackles for loss, two interceptions and four sacks. Safety J.K. Britt's interception on UNC's 3-yard line preserved a 16-14 lead late in the third quarter.
Thanks largely to the defense, North Carolina found itself in position to take a commanding lead late in the fourth quarter, despite all the miscues.
With nine minutes left in the contest, UNC was clinging to a 19-14 lead.
After three straight false start penalties backed UNC up to its own 2-yard line, Elliott connected with tight end Carl Tucker for an 80-yard pass play. With a chance to go up two scores, North Carolina found itself knocking on the door once again.
That all changed with one play. Elliott fed the ball to Carter – who was in the midst of a career day, rushing for 165 yards — and he fumbled on the 2-yard line. Virginia Tech's Tyree Rodgers hit the ball with his helmet, and the Hokies scooped it up.
Instead of a comfortable 26-14 lead for UNC, Virginia Tech had the ball with a chance to win the game.
From there, the rest of the game unfolded like a horror film for North Carolina. A deliberate, 18-play, 98-yard drive sucked the life out of a fatigued UNC defense. North Carolina's signature win was yards away, but Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis stole it.
The Tar Heels lost, 22-19, on the last minute drive. After the game, a red-eyed Elliott knew that UNC had let the victory slip away.
"Honestly, we should have won that game," he said. "If we don't make a couple of little mistakes, we win that game. We're that close to it."
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