North Carolina coach Mack Brown said he’d never seen anything like it.
The final two minutes of the Tar Heels’ 34-30 loss to N.C. State was such a devastating avalanche of mistakes that it left Brown and his players stunned.
“I’m really disappointed in me that our team doesn’t win that game,” Brown said. “The same at Pittsburgh.”
Carolina’s 30-23 overtime loss at Pitt was similar. But not the same.
This one was agonizing. This one will sting whenever it’s mentioned for years to come. See, the Heels never led against the Panthers. After rallying from down 17 points, they had a chance to win in regulation but instead tied it to force overtime.
The Heels did have to come back from down 14 against the Wolfpack Friday at Carter-Finley Stadium. But the difference from the Pitt loss was, they had this game won.
They outgained the Pack 444 yards to 360. They rushed for 297 yards — including a career-high 124 yards from senior British Brooks — which was more than the Pack had allowed in any game this season. And, until the final two drives, they had held N.C. State quarterback Devin Leary to just 159 yards passing.
Kicker Grayson Atkins made a 50-yard field goal with 2:12 left to give Carolina what should have been a comfortable 30-21 lead given the time left and how well the defense had played to that point.
It was enough of a cushion that a discernible amount of N.C. State fans left their seats to exit the stadium like they knew the outcome.
UNC senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said that ultimately was the problem. The Heels played like the outcome had been decided too. Gemmel said the Heels got “too excited, too early.”
“It was like we won the national championship,” Gemmel said. “We acted like we never been there before. We need to get some maturity and understand it ain’t over until that clock hits zero.”
So many UNC players ran on the field, to the dismay of Brown, that they were flagged and given a sideline warning. Atkins’ field goal was the last good thing that happened for Carolina.
The Heels gave up a touchdown two plays later due to a miscommunication between cornerback Tony Grimes and safety Cam’Ron Kelly.
Grimes played State receiver Emeka Emezie as if he was expecting Kelly to help, and allowed Emezie to run free past him. Kelly had started running toward toward slot receiver Thayer Thomas, then chased after Emezie when the ball was already in the air. Emezie was wide open and untouched for a 64-yard score.
The Heels allowed the Pack to recover an on-side kick. Safety Trey Morrison had his hands opened in position to field the ball but thought better of touching the ball before it reached 10 yards. He jumped over the ball at the last second. Morrison’s leap obstructed receiver Stephen Gosnell from seeing and diving on the ball and State kicker Christopher Dunn came up with the recovery.
It got worse for Carolina as it aided the Pack’s game-winning drive with penalties. The Heels had just four penalties the entire game until getting three -- offside, roughing the passer and pass interference -- on State’s final drive.
Those plays all snow balled into Leary’s game-winning 24-yard touchdown pass to Emezie.
Carolina’s defense had held State’s offense to 14 points in 58 minutes of the game before allowing them 13 in the last two minutes.
Brown reiterated that Carolina’s need to finish games in his postgame remarks. It prevented them from getting road wins at Pitt and N.C. State. It nearly cost them against Miami.
“They’ve got to believe in themselves enough and be disciplined enough that they finish games like this,” Brown said.
Not finishing wasn’t limited to how Carolina ended the game. The Heels settled for field goals on a couple of drives that reached the State 5, but they couldn’t punch it into the end zone.
UNC quarterback Sam Howell, who returned from sitting out last week with an upper body injury, said their lack of execution in the red zone has been a recurring problem.
They had a first and goal in the Pitt loss on their last drive in regulation. A touchdown would have won the game, but the Heels ended up kicking another 20-yard field goal.
“Really down there it comes down to man-on-man and some one’s got to make a play,” Howell said. “And there was a play there to be made. Myself and (the) offense as a whole didn’t make those plays. That’s an area where we really kinda struggled all year.”
The shock set in for the Tar Heels when Howell’s pass to the end zone was intercepted sending the crowd tumbling over the wall separating the stands from the field.
“Those kids really played hard,” Brown said. “I feel bad for them they played their absolute guts out like they did at Pittsburgh. Somebody is going to get a good bowl team.”