I'll give them this; the UNC football team never stops finding new an exciting ways to lose, especially to State. Sure, it's driving a stake through my heart each and every time, but it's a different stake. Never let it be said that this team was boring.
At the start, it looked like UNC would lose just like everyone expected, by fumbling early and often. Ed Barham put the ball on the ground twice in the first two possessions. The first the Heels recovered, the second gave State the ball back at the Wolfpack 25, the first of many times UNC would get close the end zone and fail to get a touchdown. UNC son settled into an offensive rhythm of short passes to Anthony Elzy ahead of a brutal pass rush. Elzy would finish with nine receptions for 178 yards, while only getting 32 on traditional running plays. T.J. Yates, meanwhile, would break the single-season and career passing records at UNC, as well as the career mark for attempts, the single-game record for completions, and single-game passing yards at Kenan Stadium. And that's probably not an exhaustive list. Yates finished with 411 yards on 33 of 44 passing, with no interceptions. That offensive effort was good enough to get the Heels one touchdown and four field goals in three quarters of play; with a minute remaining in the third, they were up 19-10 and seemingly in control.
And then things went horribly, horribly wrong.
It began with a drive from the Wolfpack, kept alive by a 34-yard Russell Wilson scramble on 3rd and 18, that deposited state on the UNC 8. The Wolfpack couldn't get farther than the 2, where they sat on fourth down; in the ensuing play the UNC pass rush pushed Wilson back to the twenty, at which point he overthrew the right corner of the end zone. Except the ball was tipped back into play, and into the hands of Owen Spencer for a touchdown. An absolutely ridiculous play that will be forever known as the Two Yard Hail Mary, and State was within two. Worse yet, a post-score fight sent both Kevin Reddick and State's Jarvis Williams to the locker room. Word from the Carolina camp is that State players were routinely spitting on the Heels.
The next possession saw Yates sacked twice times and hurried once, forcing a quick punt. A punt where no one on the kicking team bothered to cover the sideline; after steady improvement in special teams coverage all season, they reverted to LSU form as T.J. Graham returned it untouched for the go-ahead score. Another sack and another three-and-out gave N.C. State the ball back with 12:03 remaining, and they proceeded to grind 6:19 off the clock before settling for a field goal that put the Heels down nine.
With 5:41 left, Yates found Elzy on two quick passes to gain 59 yards. Unfortunately, that second run took Elzy out of the game; he's always exhausted after runs of 40 yards or more. Without Elzy, Yates struggled against the rush, sacked once and hurried often before finding Erik Highsmith for a fifteen yard score that was re-spotted to the one upon review. Faced with fourth and one, Yates found Christian Wilson for the score. The two-point conversion attempt, to the same corner of the end zone where Owen Spencer had turned a sure stop into a disaster, fell to the ground. Two onside kicks failed – State was offsides on the first – and the game looked over.
But no, UNC uses it's three timeouts and gets the stop. The Wolfpack punt, however, bounces harmlessly past the return team; desperate for any yards, the Heels ended up on their own 5 with 36 seconds remaining. The result? Yates' seventh sack of the day for a safety. The third onisde kick was as unsuccessful as the first, and UNC leaves the field with their fourth straight loss to the Wolfpack.
There's a lot of blame that can be tossed around. UNC was stopped in the red zone three times, at the 2, 4, and 20. A touchdown there instead of the three field goals and it's a different game. Similarly if the punting and receiving game hadn't gone completely off the rails, or the offensive line could better stand up to the pass rush in the fourth, or if the defense could have gotten to Russell Wilson one more time on that infamous drive. UNC actually did quite well in that last regard, sacking Wilson four times, and holding him to 26 total yards rushing. Clearly they were given more license to go after him than they had against Tyrod Taylor a week earlier. In the end, so may things worked, from the quick-pass offense that found Highsmith and Dwight Jones for five catches apiece, to a solid defensive effort. But all the bounces literally went State's way this week, and Carolina is left waiting for a Wilson-less next year to strike back.
As for this season, the Heels are bowl eligible and should easily handle Duke. 7-5 and a bowl game is a disappointment compared to July's expectations, but a decent showing given September's reality. We'll see how things go from here.