If you are someone that cares about rivalry games being exciting, tense, and a nail-biter right down to the very end, tonight’s game between UNC and NC State suited you just fine assuming you were a neutral observer. For Carolina and State fans, however, this game was as stressful as a game could possibly be, and ultimately the Wolfpack made a few more plays than the Heels did to come out of this one with a 30-34 victory. NC State now has a chance to win the Atlantic should Wake Forest lose tomorrow, which would dump that much more salt into the wounds of the Tar Heels.
This game started off just as messy as it ended. The Heels stalled out on their opening drive, and they punted the ball to NC State. The kick, however, was blocked by the Wolfpack, and the ball was picked up and ran in for a touchdown. When the Heels got the ball back, they stalled out again this time successfully punted the ball away. The Wolfpack didn’t manage to capitalize on their opening drive, but on their second drive they marched down the field 64 yards for a touchdown to extend their lead to 14-0. Oddly enough, this would be the last time that NC State would score for the rest of the first half.
While NC State struggled against UNC’s defense for the rest of the half, the Tar Heels started to find their footing offensively. Sam Howell helped them get into field goal range to put points on the board, and two drives later he broke free for a four-yard touchdown. NC State tried to answer with a touchdown of their own, but missed their 50-yard field goal attempt to end the half.
The second half is where things got extremely messy. NC State’s Ricky Person Jr. fumbled the ball and Jeremiah Gemmel set the Heels up to take a 17-14 lead. Momentum seemed to have completely shifted into UNC’s favor, pushing their lead out to 24-14 after forcing the Pack to go three-and-out. Finally, NC State answered back with a touchdown pass to Thayer Thomas from Devin Leary to close the gap.
Let’s save some time and jump to where things completely fell apart for the Tar Heels. After UNC took a 30-21 lead in the fourth quarter, Devin Leary threw a 64-yard bomb to Emeka Emezie to bring the game within 2 with 1:35 seconds left in the game. The Wolfpack lined up for an onside kick, and successfully recovered the ball. On 2nd and 10, Ray Vohasek was called for an egregious roughing the passer call, giving the Wolfpack a first down. Storm Duck didn’t help things, as he was called for pass interference shortly after. Leary ended up finding Emezie yet again in the end zone, and the game was 30-34 with enough time left for UNC to make one final push. Sam Howell did his best, but was intercepted in the last play of the game.
Truth be told, there were a few Tar Heel players that showed up in a big way tonight. British Brooks had the game of his career, finishing with 15 carries for 124 yards. He looked incredible whenever he was in the game — he broke tackles, he ran with power, and even dragged a good amount of State’s defense for extra yardage. It’s extremely promising seeing him have the kind of performance that he had against a Power Five team, let alone a rival school. I think it’s safe to say that the running back position is in good hands going into next season.
Another player that deserves some recognition despite having a weirdly low amount of touches for a good amount of the game is Josh Downs. He broke UNC’s single-season yardage record tonight with his 75 yards, leaping over Hakeem Nicks in the record books.
Josh Downs has set the UNC single-season receiving yards record that was held since 2008 by Hakeem Nicks. pic.twitter.com/m9gV70jDNC— Carolina Football (@UNCFootball) November 27, 2021
And of course, there is Sam Howell, who did everything in his power to will the Heels to a win, but ultimately it just wasn’t enough. He finished the game with 147 passing yards, one passing touchdown, 98 rushing yards, and two rushing touchdowns.
When wondering what went wrong in this game, it is really easy to point to the blocked punt at the beginning of the game, and some of the play calling late in the game when the Heels were in the red zone. There were a number of missed opportunities to punch the ball in on UNC’s second to last drive, but they ended up settling for a field goal instead. If they recovered the onside kick following NC State’s touchdown, we’re having a different conversation in that scenario as well, so ultimately it was a lot of little things that led to the Wolfpack earning bragging rights for the next year.
Tonight’s game was as wild of a game as it’s been in a while for these two teams. Hopefully Mack Brown can find a way to get his guys excited and ready for their bowl game that will be determined at a later date, but I would anticipate that tonight was the last time that we will see Sam Howell suit up for the Tar Heels. It’s been quite a ride, and now we will see what the future holds for Howell, Mack Brown, and the entire Carolina football program.