Three dropped passes.
Just three dropped passes separated the No. 5 North Carolina Tar Heels (3-1, 3-1 ACC) from their largest comeback of all time. Had any one of those passes been complete on Saturday night, and a first down had been secured, then UNC might have been able to turn its 31-28 loss to the Florida State Seminoles (2-3, 1-3 ACC).
Down 31-7 at halftime, head coach Mack Brown and the Tar Heels didn’t look like a team that belonged in the upper echelons of the college football rankings. Aside from a productive run game that notched 150 yards but only a single touchdown, nothing was going right.
The defense struggled to contain FSU quarterback Jordan Travis, whose impressive performance led his team to a huge lead. Meanwhile, UNC’s star sophomore quarterback Sam Howell was cold, throwing only 91 yards on 9-15 passing.
The game was a tragedy of errors, with the Seminoles blocking two punts in the first quarter and returning an interception for a touchdown in the second.
“You'll ask me: ‘What happened?’ I don't know,” Brown said. “If I knew, I would have stopped it, but obviously we weren't ready to handle the surge that they had in the first half and then the kids settled down. I've never been prouder of a group to come back and play like they did in the second half.”
There’s good reason for Brown to be proud, too.
After hemorrhaging points in the first half, the defense was able to rebound and hold the Seminoles scoreless in the second half. The offense had room to operate, and operate it did. Howell more than tripled his passing yards from the first half, throwing 11 completions for 283 yards and three touchdowns.
Combined with junior running back Javonte Williams’ touchdown from the first half, the Tar Heels closed the deficit to just three points with under five minutes remaining in the game.
“I just think we made adjustments at halftime,” senior linebacker Chazz Surratt said. “Some of the stuff that they did was problematic against our scheme. So we kind of switched up the fronts a little bit, and we were able to make some plays.”
In UNC’s final drive of the game, it looked like the comeback could finally be complete.
With under a minute left, Howell dropped back and looked for senior receiver Beau Corrales on the right sideline. The pass hit Corrales’ hands but ultimately fell incomplete. On the ensuing 3rd and 9, a pass intended for senior receiver Dazz Newsome also fell incomplete.
The Tar Heels had a do-or-die fourth down.
The ball was snapped. Howell dropped back, looked left and fired towards Williams. Had the ball been caught, the UNC might have lived to fight for the win.
Incomplete. A dropped ball. Turnover on downs. FSU kneels. Game over.
“They’re fine,” Howell said of his three intended targets. “All three of those guys made some really good plays, and really, all three of those guys are the reason we had a chance to win it at the end. So we just need to move to the next game and not let this game affect us when we move on to next week.”
Though the second half comeback was admirable, the hole the team dug for itself in the first half can't be ignored. It seems like an issue the team would’ve had last year, when Howell and Brown had just arrived on the scene and were still learning how to navigate and lead this team.
The comparison wasn’t lost on the team either.
“It’s just a matter of, we can’t keep putting ourselves in those situations,” Corrales said. “We can’t keep doing the stuff that we were doing last year. This is stuff we got to learn from. These are all situations that we’ve been in, so we just got to keep learning from it and practice harder.”
It’s clear that this North Carolina team is different from last year’s. The offense is more complete and dangerous, the defense provides more pressure in the pass rush and, overall, the team is more confident in itself and its place in the college football world.
But after this loss, where the team showed that last year’s weaknesses still exist, opponents will know that this Tar Heel team is vulnerable and beatable.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.