by Lee Pace, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL - This was a gut punch on the level of Nebraska in the 1977 Liberty Bowl. The Tar Heels took a 17-7 lead over one of college football's consummate blue-bloods into the fourth quarter in Memphis but hurt their cause with two turnovers, and the defense—which had stoned opposing offenses to the tune of 238 yards a game all year—yielded two long scoring drives. The final dagger came on a textbook play-action fake that froze the Tar Heel secondary and opened the back end for split end Tim Smith on a 34-yard score. Carolina returned home with a 21-17 loss and coach Bill Dooley was on his way to Virginia Tech.
This was a nose-bloodying the ilk of Maryland in 1983. Carolina was 7-0 and ranked No. 3 in the nation—its highest ranking since 1948 and highest since—when Dick Crum's squad traveled to College Park in late October. A bad center snap on a Tar Heel punt set up an easy Terrapin score in the first quarter, a portend of bad things to come, and an end-of-the-game onside kick was first ruled in Carolina's favor, then overturned when another official said the ball didn't travel the requisite 10 yards. Terrapin fans stormed the field after the 28-26 Maryland win and the death knell of the Crum regime had been sounded: a program that was 49-16-1 under Crum in five-plus seasons would be 22-24-2 through his dismissal in 1987.
This one stung as much—okay, nearly as much—as Virginia in 1996. Tar Heels were 8-1 and jockeying for position for the Orange and Fiesta Bowls when they traveled to Charlottesville in mid-November. Carolina was in control 17-3 early in the fourth quarter and driving for a knock-out score when Cavalier safety Antwan Harris stepped in front of Octavus Barnes, picked off Chris Keldorf's pass and raced 95 yards for a touchdown that swerved the momentum back to Virginia. The winning field goal was set up by a 41-yard pass from Tim Sherman to Germane Crowell, who had to wrestle the ball from mid-air on the way to the turf away from Omar Brown, who was essentially playing one-handed with a cast protecting a broken bone. Virginia won 20-17, leaving Mack Brown to open his post-game news conference by saying, "I am absolutely sick."
And this 27-23 loss to Miami on Zero Dark Thursday hit a misery index level not matched since Florida State in 2009, the last time Chapel Hill opened its doors to Thursday night ESPN football. The Tar Heels used a stout defense led by end Robert Quinn and Bruce Carter and a handful of offensive gadget plays to take control with a 24-6 lead midway through the third quarter. But a costly interception thrown by T.J. Yates and a 98-yard Seminole touchdown pass when cornerback Charles Brown slipped in coverage allowed FSU and coach Bobby Bowden in his last year of coaching to escape with a 30-27 win.
"I hope we watch the film and see what kind of defense and team we are," Tar Heel defensive end E.J. Wilson said after the 2009 defeat. "We can compete with anybody. The key word is finish. We just have to finish."
Carolina running back A.J. Blue was using the same word after practice one day last week when asked about the thrust of his weekly sermon in the thick of the team huddle between the third and fourth quarters. The fiery senior helps pull everyone together and spends the minute tapping helmets and shoulder pads and admonishing his teammates to finish.
"I look guys in the eye and preach 60 minutes and preach finishing," Blue said. "Football is the ultimate team sport. No matter how big the lead or how big the deficit, you've got to finish."
Carolina held a 20-13 lead after three quarters Thursday over the unbeaten and tenth-ranked Hurricanes. Tight end Eric Ebron was a beast with a 71-yard touchdown reception and a whirligig catch when he spun right against his body and snared the ball one-handed, prompting the 37 NFL scouts watching from above to wipe the saliva from their mouths. Bryn Renner and Marquise Williams doubled-up at quarterback and led an offense that would generate 500 yards against a defense that averaged yielding a scant 307 per game.
Meanwhile on defense, the Tar Heels were susceptible as they have been all year to the big play, with the Hurricanes striking on a 59-yard run and 68-yard pass in the first quarter. But Carolina girded itself after each of those mishaps, forcing the Hurricanes into field goals, and Miami's only touchdown through three quarters came when Carolina's operation time from its field- goal unit was slow, allowing Hurricane Artie Burns to dart from the Tar Heels' right side and block the kick conveniently into the hands of Ladarius Gunter, who snared it midair and bolted to the end zone. Carolina intercepted four passes and senior end Kareem Martin was his most active of the year with one sack and four tackles-for-loss.
And it played out before a festive atmosphere of 56,000, most of them dressed in black to match the black-on-black-on-black ensemble of the Tar Heels. This was Carolina's first night game in Kenan Stadium since that Thursday night game four years ago, and the combination of the 7:45 start, a prime opponent and a lengthy marketing blitz by the UNC Athletic Department congealed to make Kenan Stadium a rollicking and feisty environment for ESPN and the Goodyear Blimp that hovered over the venue.
"It was by far the most fun game I've been to," said Tar Heel senior Bryan Stewart, a global studies major from Pinehurst who stood three rows deep in the Tar Pit. "Of course, the State game last year with Gio's touchdown was amazing. But the first night game since I've been in school, the black, the prime-TV, everything added to the hype. It was awesome. There was a sense late in the game that we were going to storm the field. I was ready."
Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora at halftime credited the crowd with providing "an amazing environment that our guys are feeding off of," and Martin remember after the game a similar atmosphere four year earlier when he was a high school senior visiting from his home in Roanoke Rapids.
"The last time I saw the stadium like this, I was being recruited," Martin said. "I came to the '09 Florida State game. I'm just happy that Tar Heel fans, especially the students, it's their fall break, they decided to stay and come watch us play. We just fed off of their energy. Unfortunately, we couldn't pull out the win in the end."
Carolina held a 23-20 lead midway through the fourth quarter and just needed to finish to claim its first win over a Top 10 team since Connor Barth nailed the fourth-ranked Hurricanes with a 41-yard field at the gun in 2004. Freshman safety Dominique Green's second pick of the night had given Carolina possession at midfield, but moments later Renner overthrew Kendrick Singleton near the sideline at the 10 when Ebron was open over the middle and Miami intercepted. A touchdown on that drive likely would have cooked the 'Canes. But the defense snuffed Miami on three downs and the offense returned to the field at its 40 yard-line, needing to run the clock and score one more touchdown.
On third-and-1 at the 49, another of those inexorable moments of Carolina football that will live in infamy reared its ugly head. Just as they have occasionally the last two years in short yardage situations, the Tar Heel offense sent on a "hammer" personnel group that included Ebron and defensive tackle Allen Champagne in the backfield as blockers for A.J. Blue. But some combination of the substitution rotation starting too late; no one on the Tar Heel bench or Renner at quarterback calling for a timeout; and the umpire standing over the ball until one second was on the play clock all converged into a delay of game flag on Carolina. Then right tackle Jon Heck was flagged for an almost imperceptible flinch and a false start, pushing Carolina into a third-and-11. The Hurricanes then stormed from Heck's side of the line and sacked Renner, turning a potential clock-milking drive into a Tar Heel punt.
"We substituted, and the officials felt like they needed to hold up the ball," a grim and terse Fedora said afterward. "You're supposed to give the other team three seconds to be able to substitute, and we felt like we gave them more than three seconds. That was the official's explanation to me."
Somewhere, Antwan Harris watched with a knowing smile. Needless to say, Miami sucked up nearly four minutes of clock, churned out 90 yards of offense and scored the winning touchdown with 16 seconds to play.
"Our players are hurting, the fans are hurting, everybody's hurting," Fedora said. "Those kind are hard to swallow, they really are. Our guys did everything we asked them to do as far as believing in each other and playing hard and believing until the last second they could win. I'm hurting for them also, I really am."
You get used to that hanging around Tar Heel football for years upon years.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now in his 24th year writing "Extra Points" and 10th reporting from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network. His unique look at Tar Heel football will appear weekly throughout the fall.