Despite lining up against No. 15 Oregon, North Carolina showed it was more than just an underdog in Wednesday’s Holiday Bowl.
Tied at 27, the Ducks kicked an extra point with 19 seconds on the game clock. The ball bounced off the left upright and into the goal, giving them a 1-point lead. Emblematic of just how close the Tar Heels came to victory, this fateful extra point ultimately won Oregon the game, 28-27.
While this marks the Tar Heels’ third season loss in games decided by one possession, UNC head coach Mack Brown was far from disappointed in his team’s showing.
“What I’ve asked our guys to do at all times is give me everything you’ve got,” Brown said. “They did that tonight. There’s not one ounce of energy left in that locker room because they left everything on the field.”
With Wednesday’s loss, UNC finished the season with four consecutive defeats. But instead of carrying the end-of-season losses into the offseason, Brown is choosing to focus on the team’s achievements.
“What I see is that we close the season with nine wins, which has happened only one other time since I left here, and I left here a long time ago,” Brown said. “So, this is one heck of a season for North Carolina.”
After leaving Charlotte following UNC’s loss in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl last year, Brown said he did not feel proud of himself as a coach, nor of the team he put on the field. But after Wednesday night’s game, he said he could not have been prouder of the way his team played.
The Tar Heels had certain forces contributing to their underdog status. With offensive coordinator Phil Longo leaving for Wisconsin, assistant head coach Lonnie Galloway called plays for the offense — something he had never done before. With a number of players entering the transfer portal, the Tar Heels were also forced to turn to young, inexperienced players at several skill positions.
“We’re all out there, relaxed, having fun,” redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye said. “Nobody’s uptight. We made a bunch of plays, played our butts off. It was a little bit of a scramble drill sometimes getting personnel late in the game clock, but that’s what made it fun tonight.”
Defensively, the Tar Heels stood their ground. Junior linebacker Cedric Gray finished with a game-high eight tackles to bring his season total to 145 – the most in a single season by a Tar Heel since Dexter Reid with 166 in 2002.
Gray said the defensive players had to have sideline conversations about what adjustments to make after the Ducks got on the board early.
“This defense is relentless, it keeps chopping the wood,” Gray said. “It showed tonight.”
Once the Ducks took the lead, Brown said the team thought they had a chance if they could get it to the 35-yard line. And, when eventually there was just one second remaining, they knew they had to sling it into the end zone. The final Hail Mary attempt came up short, but Brown knows he can still trust his two key players in pivotal situations.
“Those two (Maye and Gray) and a bunch of other guys on this team would fight their guts out to keep me upright, man," he said. "And that’s basically what it is when you’re out there on the field. I wouldn’t trade ‘em for anybody in the country. Not anybody in the country.”
For his players, the feeling is mutual, and the team showed it in all 60 minutes of Wednesday's contest.
“[Brown is] so personable. He cares about us, loves us like one of his own,” Maye said. “I think all throughout the locker room, any one of those guys, feels the same way about coach Brown, and would run through a wall for him, no doubt.”
When asked what he’s learned throughout the season, Maye responded that he’s learned to trust the process and that the hard work that goes into doing something right will turn out for you in life. As the Tar Heels showed Wednesday night, a close loss on the scoreboard can often serve as a testament to how far a group has come.
“A football game simulates life,” Brown said. “You’ve got good, you’ve got bad, you’ve got great, you’ve got fun, you’ve got awful, and you have to handle it and you have to respond to it. I thought these guys did that.”
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