This was just like the Thursday night game versus Florida State in 2009.
Four years ago UNC led most of that game but the Seminoles ultimately rallied to claim a three point win. In similar fashion, the Heels held the lead and nominal control of the game but a series of costly errors sprinkled throughout the contest plus settling for field goals on multiple possessions left the Heels in a precarious position. Miami eventually took advantage and pulled out a 27-23 win in the final minutes.
This was a game highlighted, to some extent, by the play of the Tar Heel defensive unit. UNC forced four turnovers in the form of Stephen Morris interceptions. Some of that was Morris but credit to the Tar Heel defense for getting pressure at times. Freshman Dominique Green was responsible for a pair of the picks but despite winning the turnover margin 4-2, UNC was unable to capitalize enough to open up a comfortable lead.
UNC's offense played fairly well and tight end Eric Ebron was phenomenal racking up 199 yards receiving and a touchdown on a 71-yard pass from Marquise Williams. That score gave UNC a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter. Miami answered with a second field goal to make it 7-6 and then things got really odd. After a Bryn Renner sack of nine yards Thomas Moore came on for a 43-yard field goal attempt. The attempt was blocked and a fluke bounce sent Miami's Ladarius Gunter the other way with a 67-yard return for a touchdown and a 13-7 lead. The Heels would respond with a touchdown drive ending when Renner found Quinshad Davis for a 20-yard TD pass to retake the lead. The Tar Heels closed out the half with a field goal and a late stand to lead 17-13 at the break.
The second half wasn't pretty for either team. Miami continued to be mistake prone in the passing game despite getting significant yards in the rushing attack. And this without star running back Duke Johnson who left the game in the first half with an injury. As long as Miami ran the ball, they did fairly well but Stephen Morris passing the ball was another matter altogether. On occassion he managed big plays due to breakdowns in the UNC secondary but largely he was a liability. Despite holding the Canes scoreless for 19 minutes, UNC only manged two field goals in the interim to make it a ten point lead.
Once Miami started almost exclusively running the ball, there was little the Heels could do to stop that. Miami finally got over the hump and into the end zone to cut the deficit to three points with 11 minutes left. After a back and forth of defensive stops, UNC had possession with seven minutes left and in position to use the clock. That is until a rather inexplicable breakdown occurs on third and one near midfield. With the play clock winding down, UNC made a late substitution to put different personnel in the game. According to the explanation given to Larry Fedora, the officials were supposed to give the defense three seconds to also sub and so one stood over the football allowing for that to occur. The offense came to the ball and tried to get the play off but it was too late. The delay of game penalty was followed by a false start and the Heels turning a 3rd and 1 into 3rd and 11. Fedora said postgame that the play was his responsibility and he should have called timeout. Whatever the case, the result was Miami with the ball following a UNC punt and plenty of time to mount a game winning drive and kill the clock at the same time.
Having learned their lesson from four Morris interceptions, the Hurricanes ran the ball repeatedly behind Dallas Crawford who ended the game with 137 yards. Miami was able to not only grab big gains but burn nice chunks of clock. It was a perfectly executed drive that saw Miami score the go-ahead touchdown with 16 seconds left. UNC did manage to get the ball to the Hurricane 28-yard line and attempt a final stab at the end zone but the ball was knocked away from Quinshad Davis as time expired.
This is truly one of those "where can this team possibly go from here" moments. There were parts of this game that were sensational. Eric Ebron set a UNC single game record for receiving yards by a tight end with 199. He looked every bit the part of the best tight end in the country and had NFL scouts in attendance drooling. Both Bryn Renner and Marquise Williams performed well though the subbing in of Williams sometimes seemed random, haphazard and felt like it hurt drives. And T.J. Logan, as Fedora noted, is getting better with every rep and him getting into the end zone is only a matter of time. Logan ended the game with 61 yards rushing on 16 carries for 3.8 ypc. The much maligned defense, which still struggled at times to give up a few big plays, was opportunistic and made some crucial stops to keep Miami out of the end zone for much of the contest.
It was a game North Carolina should have won and like the other four losses, a bad play here, ill-time penalty there or the inability to get off the field on one drive tipped the scales in the wrong direction. In the end it was a devastating for a team that needed something to go the right way and build off it. While the season needs to play out, this feels like a loss that may prove very difficult to bounce back from.