The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday January 22nd

After silencing the stadium, UNC football hears all the noise after loss to N.C. State

UNC senior running back British Brooks (24) catches a long pass during the Tar Heels' football game against the N.C. State Wolfpack at Carter Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC, on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. UNC lost 34-30.
Buy Photos UNC senior running back British Brooks (24) catches a long pass during the Tar Heels' football game against the N.C. State Wolfpack at Carter Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC, on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. UNC lost 34-30.

RALEIGH, N.C. — With 2:12 to play, the once-deafening crowd of Wolfpack faithful hung in silence as students began to file out of Carter-Finley Stadium.

For 58 minutes against No. 20 N.C. State on Friday night, the North Carolina football team slowly exorcised many of the demons that spiraled its season out of control before it even began. After trailing by 14 in the first quarter, each surgical drive or timely defensive stand inched the Tar Heels closer to salvaging their difficult campaign by sweeping in-state opponents for the second straight year.

When graduate kicker Grayson Atkins boomed a 50-yard field goal to extend the lead to nine late in the fourth quarter, the celebration had already begun on the UNC sideline. Several players even trickled onto the field, seeming to stake ownership of the turf they had dominated for most of the night. 

Less than 15 minutes of real time later, though, rather than Tar Heel players hanging back to relish their gutsy win, the gridiron was swarmed by the remaining mob of N.C. State students that believed its team could pull off a feat that hadn’t been done in college football this season. 

After busted coverage allowed N.C. State’s Emeka Emezie to get loose for a 64-yard touchdown, the Wolfpack recovered an onside kick before Emezie caught another dagger to put his team ahead. When UNC got the ball back, junior quarterback Sam Howell’s last-second heave to the end zone fell into the the hands of defensive back Derrek Pitts and the literal floodgates were opened after UNC’s stunning 34-30 defeat.

“We did everything you could possibly do wrong with two minutes left to not finish the game,” head coach Mack Brown said.

If the instant collapse seemed shocking, well, it’s because there are numbers to supplement that claim. Before Friday, teams leading by two or more scores with less than 2:30 to play were unbeaten in 451 such cases this year. 

Despite the defense compiling a season-high six sacks and playing arguably its most complete game of the season, the Tar Heels’ moral victories couldn't dodge the reality of a surefire win slipping away in front of their very eyes.

“We acted like we’ve been there before,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “And I think what really caught us in the end of the game was the lack of focus because we thought we had the game won.”

The defense will likely receive the brunt of the blame for Friday’s epic collapse, but at times, the offense didn’t do the team any favors. 

Howell and senior running back British Brooks paced the Tar Heels’ rushing attack that finished with 297 yards on the ground, but when UNC marched inside the Wolfpack five-yard line looking to build a double-digit lead with eight minutes left, three straight pass plays were called – all resulting in incompletions – and the unit settled for a field goal.

“I thought on offense we had some chances to put the game away, and I didn’t make some plays there at the end,” Howell said.

Entering the season as the nation’s tenth-best team, UNC finishes year three of the Mack Brown era at 6-6 – the same position it ended year one. For a group that once aspired to compete for an ACC Championship and – perhaps unrealistically – vie for a spot in the college football playoff, the Tar Heels’ mediocre record was always going to give them the scraps of whatever bowl game was left, regardless of Friday’s outcome. 

But in a season filled with what-ifs, missed opportunities and, ultimately, zero wins away from home, the shocking loss to the Wolfpack might have just been the microcosm of everything the team went through this fall.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Brown said. “I’ve got to do a better job – I’m really disappointed in me that our team doesn’t win that game.”  

@hunternelson_1 

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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