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Column: UNC football's loss against N.C. State reinforces a harsh reality

UNC senior wide receiver, Antoine Green (3), looks for the ball in Kenan Stadium on Nov. 25, 2022, as the Tar Heels face off against the NC State Wolfpack. UNC lost 30-27 in overtime.

For the first time in Mack Brown’s second stint at North Carolina, the hype generated throughout the year appeared to be earned. 

The Tar Heels entered this season unranked. After falling to Notre Dame in late September, the Tar Heels ripped off six consecutive wins en route to clinching the ACC Coastal Division. 

Redshirt first-year Drake Maye sat close to — or atop — the rankings in nearly every statistical category among D-I quarterbacks, turning the possibility of winning the Heisman Trophy from a dream to a reality.

But after North Carolina dropped its second straight game to a backup quarterback — this time at the hands of rival N.C. State in the Tar Heels’ 30-27 double overtime loss — a glaring issue has resurfaced in Chapel Hill.

This year’s team, and maybe even the program, isn’t ready to handle the spotlight.

Throughout the course of the Tar Heels’ regular-season finale, North Carolina found itself in the same action-packed battle the team has become accustomed to. 

Maye displayed his late-game heroics once again, as the young signal caller found senior wide receiver Antoine Green in the back of the end zone on the final play of regulation. But after forcing overtime — and then another overtime —  sophomore kicker Noah Burnette’s 35-yard attempt hooked left, letting N.C. State sneak away from Kenan Stadium with a three-point win.

“We’ve come down to a play or two in every game,” Brown said. “We made (the play) in all the others — except Notre Dame, they whooped us good. Every other game has come down to the last play. We made the plays before and haven't made the plays the last two weeks.”

However, Friday night’s loss was not solely decided by the game's final play.

Maye’s across-the-body throws sailed wide of his intended targets numerous times. North Carolina’s offensive line struggled with exotic blitz packages that featured a range of delayed rushes by the Wolfpack and surrendered a season-high 11 quarterback hurries. UNC’s defense allowed a quarterback who had spent most of this year on N.C. State's scout team to throw for 271 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start. 

Needless to say, there were many reasons for frustration in UNC’s locker room following the loss.

“Some people might be mad for different reasons,” junior linebacker Cedric Gray said. “Some people might be mad because they didn’t make a play they thought they could’ve made. People are mad for different reasons, but at the end of the day everybody’s mad because we lost.”

The intense matchup featured a riled-up crowd that hollered its way throughout the entirety of the bitter contest. According to Maye, playing in featured games in front of sold-out crowds was one of the reasons he decided to come to North Carolina. 

Yet after a dismal performance from Maye — one that saw him complete just 59 percent of his passes and throw a costly interception  — the heightened stakes made the defeat sting even more.

“(It’s) just defeat,” Maye said. “All that work you put in throughout the week, through the year are for games like this. And (we) came up short.”

After dropping two straight games at home, UNC will have to switch gears quickly when it takes on Clemson for the ACC Championship on Saturday in Charlotte. 

According to Gray, getting back on track isn’t as hard for the Tar Heels as it may seem.

“My motor never stops,” he said. “I’m sad right now but tomorrow I’m looking forward and I’m looking ahead. I’m trying to get my guys motivated because we have a big, big opportunity next week.”

Although Gray wasn’t the only Tar Heel who described next week’s ACC Championship as a dream-like contest, Friday night’s loss against N.C. State reinforced the harsh reality for North Carolina. 

When the spotlight flips on, the Tar Heels tend to shut down. 


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