After an up-and-down season, the North Carolina football team (6-6, 3-5) dropped a heartbreaker Friday night in Raleigh to No. 20 N.C. State (9-3, 6-2), 34-30.
The Wolfpack got on the board first, blocking a punt from junior Ben Kiernan on the 20-yard line and returning it for a touchdown to make the score 7-0. UNC was forced to punt again on their next two drives and N.C. State struck again after the third punt, capping off a 64-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass to extend their early lead to 14.
After the rough start, the Tar Heels got their first points of the game early in the second quarter off a 22-yard field goal to cut the lead to 11. The UNC defense was able to force the Wolfpack to punt on their next two drives. After the second punt, the Tar Heels finished a 64-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown rush from junior quarterback Sam Howell to cut the lead to four heading into halftime, 14-10.
On the first drive of the second half, the UNC defense came up big, with senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmell forcing a fumble that was returned 15 yards by sophomore linebacker Cedric Gray to the N.C. State 23-yard line. The Tar Heels capitalized on the good field position on their next possession, scoring off another touchdown run by Howell –this time 12 yards– to give UNC their first lead of the day, 17-14.
The Wolfpack were forced to punt again after a three and out on their next drive and after the stop, the Tar Heels capitalized once again, extending the lead to 10 off a 17-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Justin Olson. After watching the Tar Heel lead grow to its largest of the day, the N.C. State offense responded. On their next drive, the Wolfpack offense marched the ball 73 yards down the field on nine plays and scored on a 26-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Thayer Thomas to cut the lead back to three, 24-21.
Midway through the fourth quarter, UNC added three more points off a 21-yard field goal from Atkins to push the lead to six, 27-21. After the late score, the Tar Heels added another field goal to make it a two-possession game with under three minutes remaining. N.C. State responded late with a 64-yard touchdown pass to make it a two-point game on their next drive and recovered the kickoff to set up a game-winning drive with 1:35 left on the clock.
On their last drive of the game, the Wolfpack took the lead again off a 24-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Emeka Emezie. UNC moved the ball 45 yards on their last possession, but an interception of Howell’s last-second heave sealed the deal on N.C. State’s 34-30 win.
Who stood out?
Senior running back British Brooks led the way for the Tar Heels on the ground, picking up 124 yards on 15 attempts for an average of 8.3 yards per carry. Sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs led the way through the air, catching eight passes for 75 yards. On defense, senior Tomon Fox led the attack, picking up 2.5 sacks and 3 solo tackles.
When was it decided?
After securing the onside kick, Emezie’s fourth-quarter touchdown reception ended up being the deciding factor in a hard-fought game. Howell heaved a prayer on the last play of the game to give his team a small chance to survive the road contest, but an interception in the endzone sent UNC back to Chapel Hill .500 for the regular season.
Why does it matter?
The Tar Heels were able to beat the Wolfpack in their last two meetings but Friday night their winning streak was ended against their in-state rival. After an up and down year, UNC had a chance to end the regular season on a positive note but now they will have to find that in their bowl matchup after the beginning of the new year.
When do they play next?
After last week’s win against Wofford, the Tar Heels became bowl eligible for the third straight season. Mack Brown’s group will have to wait until the conclusion of the conference championships on Dec. 5 to see where they will be headed this year.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.