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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC football fails to produce in trap-game loss against Virginia

UNC sophomore quarterback Drake Maye (10) prepares to throw the ball during the footall game against UVA in Kenan Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. UNC fell to UVA 31-27.

For graduate center Corey Gaynor, the game of football is incredibly fickle. One touchdown or one sack can change an entire game. One loss, and a team's narrative changes for the entire season. 

"You wouldn't believe, you feel on top of the world one day, right?" Gaynor warned in a press conference on Tuesday. "And everyone's patting you on the back. You lose one time. You give up one sack, you give up one TFL, and the narrative changes on you."

On Saturday, the narrative completely shifted for then-No. 10 North Carolina after falling, 31-27, to an underwhelming Virginia team with nothing to lose. However, it was not one sack or one touchdown — it wasn't even that last-ditch drive in the final minute — that lost it for the Tar Heels. It was a series of missteps and miscommunication that led to the downfall of a potential dreamlike season for UNC. 

The first sign of trouble appeared just four minutes into the game. After failing to score on their opening drive, the Tar Heels allowed Virginia to march down the field and score in just seven plays — the first time an opponent has scored in the opening quarter at Kenan Stadium this season. 

After the game, sophomore quarterback Drake Maye was asked when he first sensed things were off with the team.

He pointed to the first quarter.

"Just that first drive of lackadaisical [offense] and then they came down and scored," Maye said. "And, you know from there, it's like we're in a dogfight."

For the remainder of that dogfight, head coach Mack Brown said his team employed the perfect “formula for losing.” 

UNC allowed the Cavaliers to dominate possession (roughly 37 to 23 minutes), had poor field position due to inconsistent punting, gave up 228 rushing yards against a previously sputtering Virginia offense and dropped passes. 

“Virginia just happened to have us on a one-up,” senior jack Kaimon Rucker said. “I feel like we were ready to play. We just had a lot of misfits. We didn’t execute a lot of plays that were given. So it is what it is.”

For an anxiety-ridden Brown who understands these upsets are common, this was just what he feared. His Tar Heels ate the "poisonous cheese" and succumbed to the complacency he had warned them about.

"We didn't play very well," Brown said. "We didn't stop the run. We gave them too many explosives in the passing game and we missed on our passes. So we hit on some but we dropped more passes than I have ever seen us drop since we've been here.”

But despite roughly 59 minutes of alarming play — including a failed fourth-quarter drive following a UVA fumble and subsequent touchback —  the Tar Heels were given a last-ditch chance with just over a minute left. 

In enemy territory, with the game on the line, North Carolina completely fell apart. 

After he was blindsided by a defender, Maye threw the ball away and it landed in the hands of Virginia linebacker James Jackson.

Game over.

UNC graduate offensive lineman Ed Montilus, in a moment of exhaustion, bent over and put his hands on his knees. Maye shook his head. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers — who had just recorded their first top-10 road win in program history — began to run around in a frenzy.

They'd done it. The Cavaliers had completed an upset few thought was possible. 

But it didn't come down to just that one play. It wasn't a single touchdown or sack that shifted the game. The Tar Heels were behind on their routes, the defense couldn't contain UVA’s run game and Maye misplaced throws in front of a depressing half-filled UNC student section. 

What was supposed to be an easy win — a fall break game many thought was not even worth the watch — turned into a season-shifting loss.

"We didn't play our brand of football," Maye said. "And it ended up costing us."

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