And so the season ends, not with a bang but with an offsides call.
I really thought UNC had a win in this one, their third try at a Charlotte bowl game. The first half had been rough, with Dion Lewis already managing over a hundred yards rushing, but a missed field goal and a goal line fumble had kept the Heels in the game, and they were only down 13-10. The third quarter had gone extremely well; after giving up a field goal on what ended up being an eleven yard scoring drive, Carolina put together a seventy-yard drive of their own to take the lead. They followed it up by shutting down a Pitt drive with three straight gets on the quarterback. Carolina entered the fourth quarter with the lead, the ball, and the momentum. They'd solved the riddle of Dion Lewis and they'd disrupted the passing game to stop the short passes underneath to Mike Shanahan that were killing them earlier. They had the game in hand.
Until they didn't. Pitt got the ball back on their own 5, and proceeded to give the ball to Lewis for ten of their next thirteen plays, watching him rack up 49 of his 159 yards and put the Panthers on the cusp of field goal range. And there they stood, on the UNC 30 with 1:55 to play, and instead of kicking they baited the Heels offsides. And not just one player – I'm pretty sure three of them made the jump. It was a masterful call, and Pitt burned another minute of clock and two Tar Heel timeouts before getting their three points. A better team could take the 0:56 remaining and get their own field goal in return. UNC was not that team, getting eleven yards in eight plays, and that was the ball game.
All in all, it was the game everyone expected. Dion Lewis got his huge numbers, while the UNC defense did as well as could be expected. Mike Shanahan's five receptions were about four too many, but Greg Little's 108 total yards and two touchdowns were more than enough compensation. If anything killed the Heels, it was the field position they gave the Panthers. Only twice did Pitt start inside their own 30; the aforementioned winning drive, and a goal line interception of Yates that started them on their own 3. Three scoring drives for 13 points started in UNC territory, on the Carolina 40, 45, and 35. Push the Panthers back and give the UNC defense more room to work with, and it's a different game.
In the end, UNC sends another class off with a bowl loss, their third straight. Sure, the Heels return a fair number of players and should compete quite well in the ACC. But the offense can't be as moribund as they were this season, or 2010 will be just as frustrating as 2009.