CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA -The No. 15 North Carolina football team is now painfully familiar with the bitter taste that attaches itself to unrealized hope. The Tar Heels dropped the second game of the season to the unranked Virginia, 44-41, on a cold Halloween Saturday night in Charlottesville.
UNC watched the final embers of its comeback hopes die as the Cavaliers converted a fake punt on fourth-and-3. For the second time this season, the Tar Heels' electric offense watched from the sidelines as the opposing team took a knee and the comeback they ignited fell short.
Since Mack Brown was named head coach, the North Carolina football team has lost eight games by a combined 32 points — none of those have been by more than a touchdown. For UNC fans, it feels like it always comes down to that final play, the dropped pass, the missed fourth down stop.
Contrary to popular belief, football games —even close ones— are not won or lost in the final minutes. Football games are decided in the details: extra yards squeezed out of a run, missed tackles, turnovers, penalty yards. They're decided by muffed punts and fumbled laterals— points left on the field, that haunt you like ghosts in close defeats.
The Tar Heels are becoming all too familiar with when exactly games are decided as they continue to ignite a comeback effort seemingly after the sparks have already been stomped out.
The hope that bubbles up in UNC fans late in the game is familiar. There's no doubt that North Carolina's aggressive Air Raid offense can make any game seem in reach, especially when junior receiver Dyami Brown, smothered by an interfering defender, finds a way to come up with a 50-50 ball late in the game en route to 240 receiving yards on the night.
It's the same hope that seeps into the UNC players and propels them towards unfathomable comebacks, when other teams would simply crumble. The gut punch fans feel as hope dies is also felt by the players.
"Up until the clock hits zero we didn't think we were ever going to lose the game," graduate linebacker Chazz Surratt said. "We've got a lot of resiliency. We're tough players. We always think we know we're going to win."
But as the Tar Heels once again faced a three-possession game in the third quarter and fall short of a stunning comeback, it's the overlooked moments in the game that seem to haunt them, even more than the memorable fourth down conversions or the disappointing dropped passes.