RALEIGH, N.C. — Graduate kicker Grayson Atkins’ late field goal to push North Carolina's lead to nine with 2:12 remaining should have sealed the deal on a hard-fought road to victory Friday night.
The Tar Heels once again had a perfect opportunity to pick up a much-needed win, this time against an in-state rival. N.C. State only had one timeout remaining and UNC had a two-possession lead — but the game was far from over.
Less than a minute after the big field goal, the Wolfpack were right back within striking distance. On its next possession, N.C. State made it a two-point game off a 64-yard touchdown pass, and on the kickoff, they did the unthinkable, recovering an onside kick with 1:35 left on the clock.
UNC had practiced these situations all season but it wasn’t enough to keep N.C. State kicker Christopher Dunn from recovering his own 11-yard onside kick to give his team the spark it needed to take all the momentum from the Tar Heels.
“We work on (onside kicks) every day,” head coach Mack Brown said. “It was the perfect scenario for them to win the game, and the kick was perfect. Our guy was getting ready to field it and their kicker did an unbelievable job of being right there at the 10-yard mark and falling on it. Obviously, nothing was surprising, but we just didn’t execute.”
Against a tough opponent and in a hostile environment in the form of a packed Carter-Finley Stadium, UNC once again let its guard down late, falling 34-30 to the No. 20 Wolfpack. And this time, the afterburn was worse.
In its final regular-season contest and after an up-and-down year, UNC was within reach of completing an in-state sweep for its second straight season. Instead, the mistakes ended up costing them big.
After the kick by Atkins, the Tar Heel bench got excited – a little too excited, to hear senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel tell it – and they failed to keep their eyes on the main prize of finishing out the game.
“Guys got too excited too early,” Gemmel said. “When we knocked that field goal in, guys on the sideline got too eager and too excited too early and I think that really ended up biting us in the butt.”
Over the course of a back-and-forth game, anything was possible late, and everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong for the young Tar Heel team.
To be one of the best teams, you have to play like you've been there before, and the lack of focus when it was needed most once again shows that UNC is not quite there yet. In the chaos of college football, the game's not over until the clock hits triple zeroes — sometimes not even then.
“You’ve just got to stay locked in,” junior quarterback Sam Howell said. “Anything can happen in the sport of football, especially college football, so you’ve just got to stay locked in to the very end until there are zero seconds on the clock.”
Despite a departing class including Howell and Gemmel, the Tar Heels still have a young roster that's about to be bolstered by the number nine recruiting class in the nation in 2022. All that's to say: there's still time for this team to mature and learn how to win.
But even with all the talent in the world, with a more mature squad and even with a nine-point lead with 2:12 remaining, the old adage remains true — it ain't over 'til it's over.
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