BOONE, N.C. -- With 31 seconds remaining in the North Carolina football team‘s bout against Appalachian State, the Tar Heels were one onside kick recovery away from icing the game.
UNC secured the kick, as sophomore tight end Bryson Nesbit rose up and pawed the twisting football. But rather than dropping to a knee — and essentially ending the contest in the process — Nesbit saw a path pry itself open, and the young pass catcher darted his way into the end zone.
The act appeared harmless, as the Tar Heels extended their lead to eight with less than 30 seconds remaining. However, an unsportsmanlike penalty on first-year wide receiver Doc Chapman following the play gave the Mountaineers prime field position on their next drive.
Nineteen seconds later, App State answered Nesbit's scamper with a touchdown of its own.
However, the youthful mistakes eventually blossomed into signs of growth, as North Carolina’s inexperienced core helped the Tar Heels fend off a 40-point fourth quarter push from App State and escape Boone with a 63-61 win.
“This team needed a hard fought fourth quarter game on the road,” head coach Mack Brown said.” “We’ve got to mature and not continue to make immature mistakes.”
Even before the first snap, North Carolina’s youth was put to the test.
Prior to the game, junior wide receiver Josh Downs strolled out in street clothes. He was declared unavailable for Saturday's contest with a lower body injury and is considered week-to-week.
In his place slotted redshirt first-year wide receiver Kobe Paysour.
“I was a little anxious before we played,” he said. “But then in that first possession, once we got things rolling, I started to get comfortable.”
But Paysour wasn’t the only Tar Heel playing big minutes in a hostile environment for the first time.
Within the same skill group, redshirt first-year Gavin Blackwell and sophomore J.J. Jones both trotted out as starters in their first road games. And with a backfield headlined by first-years Omarion Hampton and George Pettaway and sophomore Caleb Hood, North Carolina’s youth had to mature quickly in front of a record-breaking crowd at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
As to be expected, with every positive play made by UNC’s youngsters came a number of mistakes.
Hampton fumbled deep in App State territory, and Blackwell dropped a would-be first down after taking his eyes of the ball. Even redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye — who played a near flawless game — fumbled early in the fourth quarter to give the Mountaineers newfound life.
“We’ve just got to grow up.” Brown said. “We’ve got a lot of inexperienced players — they’re high with emotion. But we had the game well out of reach and we didn’t put it away.”
As mistakes began to pile up for the Tar Heels, App State started to crawl its way back into the game. Maye’s fumble turned into a quick touchdown and the Mountaineers flipped a 20-point deficit into a one-score game minutes into the final quarter.
What happened next, no one could have imagined.
The two teams began to trade touchdowns in what ended as a 62-point fourth quarter. In the final minute alone, App State had two touchdowns, in addition to Nesbit’s special teams score.
“That game was crazy,” Maye said. “That was the longest game I’ve ever been apart of and that’s got to be one of the top college football games probably for this year.”
But after North Carolina denied a second Mountaineer two-point conversion attempt, UNC lined up for another outside kick.
Again, the stage was set for the Tar Heels as a successful recovery could capture North Carolina’s first road win in over a year.
On that try, Nesbit learned his lesson. Rather than shaking off a dangling Mountaineer, he dropped to the turf and clinched the victory — a game-deciding decision that showed hints of the meteoric growth to come for these Tar Heels.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys, but they’re talented,” Maye said. “And we can make some noise.”
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