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Breaking down UNC’s last drive against Wake Forest

There was a lot that went wrong on the last drive, and a lot of blame to go around.

North Carolina v Wake Forest Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Let’s get this out of the way first: if Carolina had won on Friday night it would have been an outright robbery. Carolina deserved to be down 21-0 with how well Wake Forest played and how poorly Carolina did. Even if Carolina got a last play, it would have been a Hail Mary with a very low chance of success.

But they should have had that chance.

The error a lot of people are making here, though, is just focusing on the officials’ error on the final play. As you’re about to see, the 3rd down play prior to the end of the game was an even bigger factor, as were a litany of mistakes that Carolina makes as well as the officials. To understand, let’s look at each play and where it goes off the rails.

Play 1: 1st and 10 @ UNC 25

Carolina gets the ball with 1:09 left needing 75 yards to score. Wake attacks with a three-man front and lay the rest back in coverage. Sam Howell can’t see anyone open, and when Wake sends a man on a delay, Howell does the one thing he had trouble doing all night: throw the ball away. Howell doesn’t take the sack and UNC lives to fight another down.

Play 2: 2nd and 10 @ UNC 25

Here, there seemed to be a recognition that they needed to get the ball out faster, and Howell laces a bullet to Dazz Newsome, who makes sure to get out of bounds. Two plays take only ten seconds, and Carolina is now at the 35. So far on schedule.

Play 3: 1st and 10 @ UNC 35

Howell gambles here that Wake is going to be putting tighter coverage on the sidelines and tries down the middle. Wake has that guarded as well. Still, it’s an incomplete pass with only five seconds coming off the clock, plus the pass was past the first down marker. No issues with the drive up to now. Begin the ominous music.

Play 4: 2nd and 10 @ UNC 35

Here’s where things start going off course. Howell steps back like he’s going to throw, then takes off. It’s difficult to know if this was a called play or if the freshman made a split second decision to run because he saw a lot of open field. Credit Wake for immediately collapsing on Howell and not even giving him the chance to go out of bounds. Now the clock is running and your options have been significantly cut.

You can argue about the decision to run here, but it’s at least defensible when you see how much open space Howell initially had. Now, though, the clock is running.

Play 5: 3rd and 4 @ UNC 42

Off the rails we go. Howell is attempting a pass to Toe Groves here, but it gets batted down. A big mistake by Howell is that he catches the ball instead of letting it fall. That would have set up 4th down but with a stopped clock. Once he runs, he does what he has to to get the first down, and there really isn’t a chance for him to go out of bounds.

From there, it’s a comedy of errors from the officials. Look at where Howell is stopped. While the end of the first down marker is beyond ESPN’s line, Howell is at least stopped close enough to it that a measurement should have been taken. The officials have every right to first indicate the clock should run then stop it for measurement. The decision not to stop is big because what you don’t see is what happens between plays: Rondell Bothroyd strips the ball from Howell after the tackle. Let’s be clear: this is fine, he’s trying to make a play and sell the fact that Howell fumbled, thus hoping that they can get a turnover to end the game. He’s also doing what he’s coached to do, which is run when you get the football. The refs allowed him to do so without stopping the clock, wasting a good 15 seconds.

This is HUGE. The refs are clear from the beginning that Howell is down. It’s fine to allow Bothroyd to start running because, if there’s a review, you want to give a player a chance for a clear possession. However, when it becomes very clear that they are ruling Howell down and Bothroyd continues to run with the ball, the refs won’t stop the clock for a reset, in effect penalizing Carolina.

So you have two mistakes here from the officials after the mistake from Howell. First, they don’t stop the clock for a measurement even though they were close to the line. Second, they don’t stop the clock when Bothroyd runs away with the football. Why is this important? Because the clock continues to run while the football is yards away from the offense, and Carolina is losing precious time to make any sort of play. Wake is also allowed to take its time setting up for fourth down.

After this play, Carolina should have had plenty of time for the fourth down chance and at least one more play to the end zone. The ineptitude of the officials creates this mess of a final play.

Final Play: 4th and 1 from the UNC 45

Multiple mistakes happen here on the Carolina side. You can second guess the run call, but in the haphazard way everything happened and the way Wake defended, your goal is to get a first down and stop the clock for a couple additional plays. So, it’s probably the right call. Once that first down is gained, however, Michael Carter doesn’t go down. He could have easily given himself up, which would stop the clock for first down, and Howell could spike the ball for one last play. When he doesn’t do that, he at least has the awareness to run toward the sideline, but could have gone out with about two seconds left. He didn’t-and later owned up to it-thinking that this was going to be the only chance Carolina would have to score a touchdown.

Instead, Carter only has two receivers to guard three defenders. One gets through to get Carter out of bounds, stopping his forward progress. Let’s take a closer look at the end of this play, via Trey Wallace:

The official is going to make the motion that once Carter is out of bounds, the clock should continue to run because his forward progress was stopped, and he was pushed backwards out of bounds. This, in of itself, is correct. However, the play is over with one second left on the clock. This is absolutely clear. If this were the NFL, it wouldn’t matter, except this is college which means the clock should have stopped because a first down had been gained. The officials don’t call that, rush off the field, and no one in the replay booth buzzes down to force everyone back on.

The sad thing is that had the head linesman called this correctly in the moment, Carolina likely runs out of time. A point of emphasis for the last couple of seasons in college football has been to almost immediately restart the clock after a first down is gained. So, called correctly, the clock stops, the refs rush it to the spot, start the clock, and Carolina doesn’t have enough time to get their last play off. Once it was called incorrectly, though, it is completely on the officials and replay crew to make sure that the call is right. That the officials ran off the field without even talking about it, and then the replay officials didn’t even attempt to signal down to look at it further is criminal. There is no other way to put it, Carolina was robbed of a chance for one last play from the Wake 48.

You know who agrees with that? The ACC who sent a gracious note on Saturday saying that a mistake had been made. Gee, thanks guys.

So there you have it. In the age of hot takes, it seems like we have lost our ability for nuance. Friday night was either “CAROLINA WAS CHEATED OUT OF A CHANCE” or “THE RIGHT CALL WAS MADE!” As you can see, though, the truth is multi-layered and complicated. In effect, the truth is:

  • Wake played great and deserved to win the game, including great defense time and again on the last drive. Their plays were a major factor in how it all went down.
  • Carolina’s playmakers made several mistakes on the last two plays that cost the team at least two more plays for a chance to tie or win
  • The officials, both field and replay, also made several mistakes and the league admits they cost Carolina one more play

With a new head coach, offensive coordinator, and freshman quarterback, the mistakes on that last drive were bound to happen. The hope here is that they all learn from this, and the feeling of “oh no, not again” doesn’t creep into the mindset of the players who have been on the field for the two seasons prior. In the long run, they’ll be a better team for this experience.