By Turner Walston
Carolina got the ball at their own 18, down seven with 6:53 to play in the fourth quarter against NC State. The Tar Heels had done well to crawl back within a touchdown, having scored 14 straight points since the quarter began, having earned a rare three and out on defense to get the ball back, to have this chance.
On their prior offensive series, quarterback Mitch Trubisky had connected with senior wideout Bug Howard for a 48-yard touchdown. "We never quit. The attitudes were always good, and I always felt like we were in it," said fellow senior receiver Ryan Switzer. "When Bug scored, everyone started to sense that. I was expecting to go out there with six minutes on the clock and put a score in the end zone."
There's precedent there, reason for Switzer to think that. After all, the Tar Heels had engineered extraordinary comeback wins this season. Against Pittsburgh, Howard's late grab gave the Tar Heels a one-point win. At Florida State a week later, it was a 54-yard Nick Weiler field goal as time expired that earned the Tar Heels a victory in Tallahassee. There was a time, not so long ago, that Tar Heel fans were anything but confident in a game-winning drive attempt. Nowadays, there's the expectation of success.
But it was not to be on Friday. The Tar Heels got behind the chains on a false start. A 15-yard completion to Switzer moved the chains, but only to the 28. Trubisky then took a sack for a loss of seven. A seven-yard completion to T.J. Logan, then, made it 3rd and 10 rather than 3rd and 3. So when Trubisky scrambled for 16 yards to the 44, and then a late hit out of bounds tacked on another 15, the ball only went to the NC State 41. After a holding penalty, Trubisky missed receivers on 2nd, 3rd and 4th and 20. Howard nearly made a fingertip grab on the last one, but it was not to be. Just as they'd done all day, the Tar Heels shot themselves in the foot over and over again on the last drive. Penalties and the sack cost them 32 yards when they needed to go 82. On 4th and 20, you're going to need to accomplish the extraordinary. "Sometimes, they're going to make amazing grabs, sometimes they're not," Trubisky said. "So I've got to help them out with better throws, and it didn't go our way." It was not to be.
"I kind of had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that that was it," Switzer said. "That was the last time we were going to get the rock." It was. NC State converted on a 3rd and 5 when the Tar Heels were out of timeouts, and they were able to run out the clock.
But the Tar Heels didn't lose because Howard hadn't made an amazing grab; they lost because they didn't do enough for the prior 56 minutes and 50 seconds. They'd gotten behind by three touchdowns before getting on the board themselves. On 14 of 28 first-down plays, the offense either went backwards or gained zero yards. Meanwhile, NC State averaged gaining 7.82 yards on their own first-down plays. The Tar Heels got behind the chains and they gave the Wolfpack easy conversions. They hadn't done the simple things, executed the fundamentals necessary to win a football game.
"We just didn't make enough of the ordinary plays that we normally make to win a football game," Fedora said. "We just didn't get it done. On both sides of the ball, there were a lot of ordinary plays that we make every day that we just didn't make today."
On three of their first four possessions, the Tar Heels had opportunities in Wolfpack territory. Third and four, incomplete pass. Third and five, incomplete pass. Third and three, incomplete pass. On the second on those first four possessions, Trubisky fumbled and NC State recovered at the Tar Heel 29. Three punts in NC State territory and a fumble in the Tar Heel end on the game's first four possessions. Not a good start. "You can't put yourself behind the 8-ball that way and continue to make those mistakes throughout the day and think that you're going to overcome them," Fedora said.
That's true - Carolina failed to execute the ordinary plays too often. What's also true is that the offense was asked to execute the extraordinary at times when perhaps the ordinary would do. In the third quarter, down 28-7, Carolina drove to the NC State 17. A screen pass to Elijah Hood and Trubisky rush made it 3rd and 1 at the 8. Carolina called timeout, then came back with a wildcat direct snap to T.J. Logan, who was caught for a loss of one. On the next play, Logan took the snap again, flipped the ball to Switzer, who missed Trubisky on a pass attempt. Turnover on downs.
When it works, it's great. When it doesn't, it's not. And it didn't. The Tar Heels needed one and two yards and weren't able to get them. On 3rd and 1 and 4th and 2, Carolina took the ball out of the hands of its standout quarterback. The Tar Heels took Hood, their bruising tailback, off the field, something that's become an unfortunate theme of close plays in close losses.
"I'm not worried about the criticisms, either," Fedora said of the play calls. "I don't really care what everybody thinks out there about the calls. We called what we worked (in practice). We do it every week, and when it works, everybody loves it. When they don't, they can criticize it. That's just the way the world works."
So it is.
Those plays didn't cost the Tar Heels the game, certainly, but you'd love another crack at 3rd and 1 at the 8. Carolina still had a chance to win late, but the inability to get out of their own way, the inability to stop Matthew Dayes or get a stop on third down, the inability to get positive yards on first down cost them a win in a bitter rivalry.
The price of success is that more success is expected. Last year, the Tar Heels won 11 games in a row before falling in the ACC Championship Game and the Russell Athletic Bowl. This year, they came into Friday with a chance to earn a share of another Coastal Division title. They won that game at Florida State, won at Miami. They'd won extraordinary games in extraordinary ways. And that was fun. But in their last two conference games, the Tar Heels lost, despite being the favored, more talented team. Despite being the team with more on the line. Duke and NC State summoned something in themselves and the Tar Heels were unable to match their opponents. Carolina was looking for their sixth conference win in both of those games; Duke and NC State earned their first and third, respectively, against the Tar Heels. And so despite an eight-win season, there was bitter disappointment with Friday's loss.
"That just comes with the new standard that we established here," said defensive tackle Nazair Jones. "We'll finish the regular season winning eight games. To us, that's completely, just . . . horrible, but to some teams, that''s a great season, and people get promotions and all these different kinds of things. I think that just goes back to creating a standard here."
Friday, 16 Tar Heel seniors played their final home games in Tar Heel uniforms. This class has been transcendent, part of creating that new standard that Jones referenced. There's now an expectation of success. There's a smile of satisfaction with every win rather than a gasp of surprise. "I hate it for this football team, but especially for the seniors," Fedora said, "because of what they mean to this program and what they've done for the culture here at Carolina, and I can't say enough about what these guys have done."
They raised the bar for Carolina football. When you've tasted real victory, there are no more moral victories. "We didn't have to do anything superhuman today," Fedora said in the postgame, echoing back to his stressing the ordinary. "We just need to execute and play football, and we didn't do that."
Carolina football wants to be extraordinary, wants to carve out its place among the college football elite. It's close, but it's not there. Not with losses to rivals like in the last two conference games. Not when they can't execute the simple things to move the chains or get a stop. Jones is right; 8-4 is no longer the standard at Carolina. The Tar Heels went 2-0 in the state of Florida in 2016. But they went 0-2 against in-state rivals. When a team wins big games on the road, it gives itself a shot at glory. But when it can't win the games it's supposed to, that team becomes, well, ordinary.