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UNC 23, Stanford 25: Tar Heels’ final goal unfulfilled in Sun Bowl loss

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As happened too often this season, the Tar Heels fall just short of what might have been.

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Stanford vs North Carolina Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

This is not how anyone wanted it to end.

Let’s begin with the silver lining: the North Carolina defense turned in arguably its best performance of the season. Any Tar Heel fan would gladly have taken their chances in this game if they knew their oft-maligned defense would produce this:

· Holding the Stanford offense to one offensive touchdown (a 49-yard pass to North Carolina native Bryce Love on a wheel route in the 1st quarter – the other touchdown was a pick-six);

· A goal line stand with 4:16 remaining, and every other red zone possession by Stanford ending in a field goal attempt.

· A game line of 288 total yards against, which is even more impressive when you consider that 108 of those yards came on two plays by Bryce Love (the aforementioned 49-yard catch and a 59-yard run).

Among other things, it appeared that for the first time all season, defensive end Dajaun Drennon was 100% healthy and able to give his full-power contribution to the defense. Stanford found the going on the ground – including on the oft-busted UNC edges – to be much tougher than any recent Tar Heel opponent. His effort was supplemented by one of junior DT Nazair Jones’ best games of the season, consistently disrupting the Cardinal backfield and putting the game well within the Tar Heels’ reach. As the Tar Heels enter a 2017 season in which they will have to replace a lot of experienced offensive personnel, they can take away one thing from this game worth making a note of: maybe, just maybe, this defense has developed to a point at which it can lead the team when it needs to.

But it wasn’t enough.

An appearance by the North Carolina offense to which its fans have become accustomed would have been more than sufficient for UNC to win their last game of the season. That offense, however, has had more than one stretch this year in which it struggled to find its rhythm, and that pattern repeated itself for much of the Sun Bowl. With the exception of UNC’s opening touchdown drive, which may as well have been labeled the Mitch Trubisky Football Clinic, and its last, furious, 97-yard touchdown drive to end the game, which provided a final reminder of the never-say-die mentality that made you believe one last time, the North Carolina offense simply failed to produce at its usual level of efficiency.

The game – and to some extent, the lasting image of the season – came down to the two-point conversion that followed Trubisky’s shaking off two dropped touchdown passes earlier in the drive to hit Bug Howard with 25 seconds remaining to give the Tar Heels a chance to tie. The Tar Heels lined up for conversion play that Fedora indicated in his postgame comments was one they’d worked on for two years – the kind of must-have play that you save for a special occasion. The wrinkle in the play was that Trubisky lined up under center for the snap, a look that Stanford would never have seen on film.

We will never really know what that play was designed to do, because the play design did not survive the wholesale destruction of the right side of the offensive line. Trubisky was quickly swallowed up by Solomon Thomas and several Cardinal teammates, and never had a chance.

It was something of a microcosm of the game as a whole. Since he plays on the west coast for a team that also has a guy named Christian McCaffrey, you may have spent most of the game referring to Thomas as #90, and wondering where he came from. Tar Heel fans learned his name the hard way, though, and won’t soon forget it -- they will cringe every time they hear his name called on Sunday. The All-American’s final line included seven tackles and a sack, but that doesn’t begin to describe the havoc he wrought in the UNC backfield – Fedora referred to Thomas as “not a good player . . . a dominant player.” Indeed. UNC offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic tried everything, up to and including benching right tackle Jon Heck in favor of William Sweet, but none of Sweet, Heck, or right guard RJ Prince showed any ability to dampen Thomas’ eruption.

That didn’t make life easy on Trubisky, but it must be said that the player who may become the first North Carolina quarterback ever taken in the first round of the NFL draft did not have a game like the ones on which that resume was built. Trubisky had a hand in all three UNC turnovers, including most crucially a pick-six at the 14:13 mark of the 4th quarter that relinquished the lead and momentum the Tar Heels had fought back to carry into the final period. It was a poorly timed throw on a wheel route – the kind of mistake that has been so utterly devoid from Trubisky’s body of work that you needed to see a replay to believe what you’d seen. Added to a first half interception that looked avoidable and a bizarre play on which the umpire forced a fumble from him on a scramble, it was as difficult an outing as Trubisky had in his career. If, indeed, this was Mitch Trubisky’s last game as the leader of the UNC offense, it was not the signature game he undoubtedly wanted to go out with.

The 2016 UNC football team finished without accomplishing any of its stated goals: winning the state championship, winning the ACC Coastal, winning the ACC championship, and winning its last game. The Sun Bowl ended up being a pretty good representation of all of the things that have made a year like that so frustrating: the potential was all there; the moments were there, and there were great performances (Jones, Drennon, and we cannot leave out Ryan Switzer setting the UNC receiving yardage record). The big plays and the mentality were there. But at each point at which the game, and the season, could have become something memorable, something, somewhere went wrong. It is the feeling of missed opportunity that will haunt the fans, coaches and players – and most unfortunately the seniors and early NFL entrants – for a long time to come.