With the North Carolina football team lined up at the three-yard line on fourth down, head coach Mack Brown had a huge decision to make: go for the field goal and put the ball back into the hands of Kenny Pickett — one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC — or go for the lead and put a ranked team on the brink of defeat for a second week in a row.
The UNC head coach was talked into choosing the latter, and it cost him.
“Looking back, I would have been better off going for the fourth down at that point,” Brown said.
It ended as a bitter 30-23 defeat against No. 25 Pittsburgh in a game that encapsulated what this season has been about.
Coming into the season with a lot of hype, North Carolina dropped its first game. After its offense showed signs of life in a 59-39 win versus Virginia, it sputtered against a now 3-6 Georgia Tech team.
And Thursday — just a few days after UNC fans stormed the field following the Tar Heels' comeback win over Wake Forest — the offense disappeared once again.
When its playmakers woke up and hope within the fanbase was restored, North Carolina let another signature win slip away from its fingers.
“Nobody bats an eye, guys continue to fight, and I think we fought to the very end,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said.
But that fight, just like every other sign of positivity from this UNC football team, was immediately eradicated, serving as a gut punch to fans, players, students and coaches.
It was the first game the defense really stepped up and made enough plays to win a game. Yet, that was still not enough.
“I don't know why we can’t put a whole game together and have both sides play well,” Brown said.
That sums up the season for the Tar Heels: unreliability, variability and an inability to follow up impressive performances on one or both sides of the ball.
Now, questions arise as to whether progress has truly been made from Brown’s first season after his 2019 return to North Carolina.
While recruiting has improved drastically, the team has fallen victim to the same issues that caused the program so many issues throughout Brown’s two years in Chapel Hill. Slow starts, erratic defensive play and failed second half comebacks have consistently held the Tar Heels from unlocking the potential the public saw in them — especially coming into this season.
The coaching staff’s controversial decision to not go for the win and let its offense fall victim to the unpredictability of weather adds to the increasingly long list of what-ifs over the three seasons.
Despite Brown’s remorse over his choice, two of the team’s leaders supported it. Having the backing of Gemmel and junior quarterback Sam Howell shows one of the bigger silver linings from the trip to Pittsburgh.
“I stand behind what we did,” Howell said. ”... I have no regrets about decisions we’ve made.”
While plenty of praise can be given to a team that fights back from being down 17-0, it’s UNC's endurance in the freezing cold rain on the road that shows the faith North Carolina has in itself. These players appear to still believe in what their coaching staff is building in hopes that one of these promising moments will turn into consistent success.
But after a tough loss to the Panthers, the Tar Heels will have to deal with the disappointments of another missed chance.
“We had a lot of opportunities, and no matter the circumstances, we got to make a play there, then,” Howell said. “And we didn't.”
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