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UNC vs. NC State: Winners, Losers, & Honorable Mentions

A game full of almosts comes up just short.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Well. That happened.

On a Black Friday that can only be rivaled by recovering from eating undercooked turkey, The Tar Heels lost to the Wolfpack on a frustrating afternoon, causing them to limp into the ACC championship game next weekend in Charlotte. It was painful being in the stadium watching all of this, coming so close and then seeing their fans celebrate as if they won the national championship. Clearly it’ll be their highlight of the year.

They’ll get to savor this win while the Tar Heels try to pick up the pieces and claim their first ACC championship in over 40 years next weekend. A win will help soothe a lot of the pain of the past two weeks, but a loss puts the team in a bit of a tailspin that would mar an otherwise really good season.

Without further ado, let’s dive right into the meat of the matter.


Antoine Green-The super senior returned from injury and reminded us all just how important he is to the offense. The photo above was when Drake tried to stretch the field with him early on, and the catch was just out of bounds. It was clear he should have been an even bigger factor in the game than he was, and as it is, he still managed to find a way to get open for the fourth down touchdown catch as the clock hit zero. It was a great play by an experienced receiver. He’ll get at least one more game next weekend, but his play this season has been a revelation.

Cedric Gray-Seven solo tackles, one assisted for a team lead eight on the game. The Carolina defense has been easy to roast all year, but all we really needed of them was to be OK. For the last two games, that’s what they’ve been: OK. Gray has been the leader of this front trying to hold down the fort while they can’t get any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. His 130 tackles this year have been sorely needed, and I shudder to think what the defense would have been like without him.

Don Chapman-Bless his heart, you could tell he hated that he was unable to come up with the pick on the poorly thrown Ben Finley pass late in the game. He slid into the primary safety spot that Cam Kelly takes when Kelly went out in the first quarter with a hamstring injury, and he filled in well. He had five tackles, the pass breakup when he just missed the pick, and also had a forced fumble. If Kelly isn’t healthy for next week, you don’t have any concerns bout Chapman being able to step up. The secondary as a whole did an outstanding job considering the loss of Grimes prior to the game, Kelly during the first part of the game, and their best corner Storm Duck after halftime. The challenge steps up next week, so hopefully the defensive staff has been studying DJ Uiagalelei to be able to stop him better than the previous two quarterbacks.


Noah Burnette-I’m not going to going to rub salt in the wound for this kid, because as I’m about to discuss it shouldn’t have come down to him. But...he missed a 27-yard kick in the fourth that would have been the game winner, and the 35-yarder in the second overtime that lost the game. I’m about to argue the loss is absolutely not his fault, but to ignore the obvious here is just putting your head in the sand. Hopefully this doesn’t define his career.

Phil Longo-For all the good the offensive coordinator for Carolina does, his tendency to just overthink things and not adjust is maddening. We saw it last week against Georgia Tech —stubbornly sticking to the run and trying to go for deep shots instead of settling his starter down, and this week was more of the same. He kept trying to run straight up the middle into the teeth of the NC State front, the poor blocking kept Drake under pressure, and there was never really any attempt to shift like they did against Pitt to use the running back as an extra blocker and utilize the tight ends. The best drive of the game was the last one in regulation when the Tar Heels had a short clock and had NC State fighting to collect themselves. Then, in the first OT, after a a great 12-yard pass to Josh Downs, Longo had such a predictable run up the middle that State swarmed, causing a four-yard loss. Then he had Drake rush up the middle. Given a pass-only situation in the red zone, State was able to defend JJ Jones and they had to settle for a field goal. In the second OT, Carolina only went three plays: first another short rush then a short pass completion. On third down, with just three yards needed for a first down and State actually having to guard against the run, Longo opted to create the highlight play instead of just get the first down. He sent Downs to the end zone instead of recreating the same pass in the slot that got them five yards. He did that thinking if it missed he could just give it to the kicker who...had already missed a 27-yarder. Again, a scholarship kicker should make a 35-yarder, but you have too many weapons and had too much success to have just gone for it all on third down with the guy who had found success in the slot. Not to mention, settling for a field goal in that situation turns it into an alternating two point conversion contest. It’s maddeningly frustrating and it’s a constant problem with Longo year after year.

Sportsmanship-This isn’t necessarily about the way State celebrated after the game. They won on the road and deserved to celebrate. It was rough to watch, especially as someone who was stuck in the stands because the whole stadium was still full for the end of the game. From the band playing the Smurfs theme, to them “planting” the flag at midfield, it was salt in the wound as they celebrated like it was their Super Bowl. You can hardly blame them, cause it’s likely going to be the highlight of their year as they muddle through a disappointing bowl game and then try to win some basketball games. The fan base is one that has been kicked so much and is so quick to turn pessimistic, dark, and sour that it’s a real explanation for the toxic culture they have built to where everything is against them. They wear their pain as a badge of honor, and have podcasts celebrating just how tough their life is. Woe is them.

It begs the question: why are we humoring them?

Earlier in the season, Drake Maye had his quote about State that had the first signs of how the UNC fan base truly feels about the Wolfpack, and he was quickly forced to apologize. On Friday night, the NC State dance team shared the field with the Carolina Girls, even including an appearance by Mr. and Mrs. Wolf dancing with Rameses and RJ. My question is, why? They don’t care about these olive branches. In fact, during the game, a story of their pre-production meeting was shared:

Doeren knows exactly the fan base he’s speaking to: one that so hates being the little brother to UNC that all he has to do is kick them in the gut and the fans will love him. It works every time, and every time Carolina essentially responds with a shrug. The fan base is one that will take any chance to spit on a UNC fan, and record a Kenan Stadium bathroom to show off “how much blue there is in this place” (true story, happened while I visited during the game). They want Chapel Hill burned, and when they get a win it’s the highlight of their wasted year. They. Don’t. Deserve. Being. Nice. To.

In short, off the field overtures with a partner institution are fine. Both institutions offer a valuable service to the state of North Carolina and create one of the most unique and priceless services to the state, the country, and world. They were created with the idea that a student in North Carolina can study anything they want and between the two schools, get it at an affordable price. On the field, though, they are rivals and the fan base is programed to think that anyone who wears the shade of blue is their enemy, that any call that goes against them is a vast conspiracy to keep them down, and the coach knows this fan base well enough to keep stoking that fire. Quit trying to be the better school. It’s never going to work with that constantly miserable fan base.

#ACCRefs moment of the week

We need to look at the fair catch rule.

Two weeks in a row Josh Downs has been in a position where he was trying to communicate with his teammates that the ball was poorly kicked and to be careful about touching the ball. He was very clearly not calling for a fair catch, instead using both arms at his waist to tell his team “don’t touch the ball.” That’s his job as the only player looking directly at the ball. Both times the ball bounces to him, and he’s trying to use the momentum of that bounce to get going and try a return, only to hear whistles ruling the play dead.

The thing is, it’s technically the right call.

The NCAA rule book has language for both a “valid” and “invalid” fair catch signal, and in both cases if the ref thinks arm motion could be interpreted as a fair catch signal, the play can be blown dead. Maybe that official can’t hear Josh yelling at his teammates, or maybe it’s a player safety thing, but it’s frustrating to see someone with the skills of Downs trying to make a play only to be stopped because he’s also trying to make sure someone doesn’t accidentally touch a poorly kicked ball. The NCAA thought enough to add language about “invalid fair catch,” maybe it’s time to clarify what a returner can do to communicate with his teammates.

Honorable Mentions

Josh Downs is clearly not playing at 100%, and yet he keeps going out there trying his best. Despite the focus on him he still managed to get six catches for 51 yards, if he had pulled the touchdown pass in double OT it would have been a great way to end his career at home, but in the end it shouldn’t have been where he was...Drake Maye has come back to earth the last couple of weeks, It’s just a question of whether he’s 100%, the play-calling has hurt him, or both. Last weekend I thought he at least should still get an invitation to New York, but now, unless he has something like a 35-40 400+ yard 5 TD game against Clemson, I think voters are going likely go with bigger names. He’ll have the offseason to know where to improve, and the good news is the 2023 schedule that includes South Carolina, Minnesota, App State, and Clemson should give him more opportunities to shine. He’ll also be a name people will be looking at at the start, which helps a lot...Elijah Green just barely missed the 100 yard mark, but the fact he had 24 attempts and still didn’t get there was maybe the biggest sign that, while he did get off some great rushes and did get a touchdown, perhaps we need to just understand he’s not Michael Carter or Javante Williams.

The advantage of playing on Friday is that the team gets another day to relax, and the coaching staff gets another day to study their opponent. Clemson can be beat, but it’s going to take a great effort from both sides of the ball, and complimentary football like we haven’t seen all season. Despite how these last two games have gone, it doesn’t change the fact that a win in Charlotte books you a trip to the Orange Bowl against a squad that will be disappointed in how their season went. Here’s hoping the result is better than the 2015 game.