All week, the North Carolina football team preached the dangers of underestimating an opponent.
It was a needed message for the Tar Heels, who had won six straight games and may have been tempted to look ahead to future matchups against N.C. State and Clemson rather than focus on Georgia Tech.
But UNC still fell into the trap despite the preparation, losing to the Yellow Jackets 21-17, getting shut out in the second half and giving up 21 unanswered points, showcasing what head coach Mack Brown thought was an "immature team."
“I think what (Coach Brown) is referring to is that we kind of took them not seriously and got a little bit overconfident,” junior linebacker Cedric Gray said. “All season long we’ve been in close games, and we’ve won them. Everybody’s just like ‘Oh whatever, we’re just going to win,’ and it caught up to us.”
As Gray said, UNC had been in a one-score game six times this season, and six times they had come out on top.
But on Saturday, when the Tar Heels found themselves in their seventh game separated by one score, the North Carolina sideline thought they knew how it would end – with redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye leading a game-winning drive.
Unlike those previous six games, though, Maye couldn't get it done, as he finished with a season-low 202 passing yards and didn't score a touchdown for the first time all year.
“It starts with me. This offense starts with me,” Maye said. “It’s my job to move us down the field and score points and we didn’t do that tonight, and it’s any given Saturday in college football and I gotta do my job.”
Even so, the defense had several chances late in the fourth quarter to get a stop and put the ball back in the hands of Maye, something they'd been able to do most of the season.
However, their expectations came back to haunt them.
North Carolina had Georgia Tech on the ropes, with the Yellow Jackets facing a third down with 3:11 left in the game. On the blitz, it seemed as if UNC had Georgia Tech quarterback Zach Gibson contained in the backfield, but Gibson was able to dump it off to running back Hassan Hall, who proceeded to pick up the first down.
Then again, after a false start penalty, the Yellow Jackets had a third down with nine yards to go and just over two minutes left on the clock, giving plenty of time for the Tar Heels to flip possession and march down the field.
Again though, the UNC defense got ahead of itself and let Hall run past them to pick up the first down, allowing Georgia Tech to eventually run out the rest of the clock.
“At times, we played the best defense we played all year,” Brown said. “That’s what’s sad about us not playing as a team. We haven’t played as a team all year. We’ve played quarters, we don’t play games.”
The loss was only UNC’s second of the year, but as Brown, Gray, and Maye spoke, the tone of their voice spoke volumes — they knew they let the game slip away.
They knew that there was no reason why they should’ve been unable to score again after going up 17-0 with 3:13 remaining in the first half.
They knew that allowing 21 unanswered points to a team that had scored as many points in an entire game just four previous times this season was unacceptable.
Still, they have a game against an in-state rival and the ACC Championship game coming up in the next two weeks. Despite the stumble on Saturday, there's still more football to play.
“This team, this school hadn’t won nine games many times in its history,” Brown said. “These kids have done an unbelievable job.”
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