It was far from easy for UNC. Coming off of wins against South Carolina and Miami, the team was admittedly overconfident, and it showed.
The Tar Heels fell behind quickly. A fumble by sophomore running back Javonte Williams at the Tar Heels’ own 20-yard line led to a Demon Deacon touchdown with a little over three minutes left in the first quarter.
Then, about two minutes later, a 41-yard bomb from Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman to wide receiver Sage Surratt set up another score six seconds into the second quarter. At the 12:04 mark of the second quarter, Newman connected with Surratt again, this time for 51 yards and Wake Forest’s third touchdown of the night.
Headed into halftime, the Tar Heels found themselves in a 21-0 hole. They had mustered just 71 yards of total offense.
“At halftime, the guys had to make a decision,” Brown said. “‘Are you going to pick it up and play and come back out and give yourself a chance to win the second half like you have the other games?’”
The team responded to Brown’s challenge. UNC forced Wake Forest to go three-and-out on the first drive of the second half. Two drives later, the Tar Heels pressured Newman into throwing an interception to senior safety Myles Dorn.
All of a sudden, North Carolina had new life.
“I knew that play had to be made, just to get the morale up,” Dorn said. “I felt the energy switch.”
Still, the offense couldn’t find a rhythm. UNC didn’t score until the final seconds of the third quarter, when redshirt sophomore kicker Noah Ruggles’ 49-yard attempt was just long enough to put three points on the board.
At the start of the fourth quarter, first-year quarterback Sam Howell — who finished with 182 yards and two touchdowns — had only thrown for only 62 yards.
“I’ve just gotta play better,” Howell said. “If our defense gives up (just) 24 points, we should win the game.”
But Howell and his teammates said they didn’t lose hope. And why would they? The team’s fourth quarter magic had proven effective in its first two outings.
It looked like it would work again.
Minutes into the final quarter, Howell hit sophomore receiver Dyami Brown in stride for a 55-yard completion. Three plays later, he found junior running back Michael Carter for an 11-yard touchdown.
The Tar Heels’ next drive ended in a score, too. A 17-yard slant pass from Howell to Brown, followed by a successful two-point conversion, cut the deficit to three points.
UNC’s defense still hadn’t allowed Wake Forest to score. That changed, though, when the Demon Deacons drilled a 32-yard field goal after milking the clock in the final minutes of the game.
Howell and the offense had the ball back, down by six points with 1:09 left. The Tar Heels had one last chance.
However, by the time UNC moved the ball close to Demon Deacon territory, there simply wasn’t enough time left. Carter tried to get out of bounds on a 13-yard run — which ended up being the last play of the game — but couldn’t do so before the clock hit zero.
“We’ve got to do better in the first three quarters,” Howell said. “It shouldn’t come down to the fourth quarter every time for us to pick it up on the offensive side of the ball.
“I’ve got to play better in the first three quarters so we’re not in those situations.”
With the loss came a lesson — the Tar Heels can’t overlook opponents and must take the same approach week in and week out.
And if North Carolina hopes to put together its first winning season since 2016, it was a lesson that needed to be taught.
“We know how we can play ball,” Gemmel said. “We’ve just got to come out every single day and bring that energy.”
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