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UNC Football: The Heels drop a stunner to Virginia, 31-27

The higher you go, the harder you fall

NCAA Football: Virginia at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that sucked. Riding high off last week’s big win against Miami, UNC came out flat as huge favorites against an inspired Virginia team and couldn’t make enough plays to win, losing 31-27 in one of the program’s worst losses in Mack Brown’s second stint in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heel offense, defense, and special teams were all various levels of out of sync throughout the game and Tony Elliott’s squad took advantage, controlling the game and looking much more the part of an undefeated team than the hosts.

While Mack Brown hammered the importance of starting fast in this game, exactly the opposite happened for UNC. After a penalty on the opening kickoff return pinned them back inside their own 10, their first drive fizzled out quickly and the Tar Heels punted from deep in their own territory to give Virginia great field position. The ‘Hoos took advantage, using a couple of big runs and a big fourth down-and-short conversion to get down the field, striking first with an 11-yard touchdown run by Mike Hollins.

The Heels stayed on schedule on their next drive, with a series of chunk plays on the ground and through the air getting capped off by a gorgeous 25-yard touchdown pass to Tez Walker after an 8-play drive that took 2 and a half minutes. The UNC defense bowed up on the following Virginia drive, but with an opportunity to take the lead, UNC gave the ball back quickly after a bobbling attempt by Nate McCollum to catch a deep ball with his thighs was eventually ruled unsuccessful, and with the ball near midfield again, Virginia was able to replicate their first offensive drive and retake the lead, 14-7, with another Hollins red-zone touchdown run.

McCollum’s woes continued on the next drive, with two more drops of potential first downs, leading to another UNC punt, though this one came from a little farther up the field. After a quick three and out on the other end, UNC finally connected on a big play, with Maye hitting Bryson Nesbit down the sideline — the tight end did the rest, outracing the Virginia secondary and hitting paydirt for a 62-yard catch and run. The teams traded several empty possessions after that, marked by one Virginia drive that got near the goal line before Tony Muskett threw a bad goal-line fade that Don Chapman picked off in the end zone. With two minutes left, both teams were forced to punt without taking much time off the clock, giving UNC the ball with a minute left before the end of the first half and three timeouts to try and take their first lead of the game. With some small ball through the air, mostly featuring Walker, Maye marched the offense up to just inside the Virginia 30, setting Noah Burnette up for a 43-yard field goal that he just got over the upright, sending his team back into the locker rooms 17-14 after a frustrating first half.

The second half started better, with the defense getting a fourth-down stop just past midfield and the Tar Heel offense responding in kind with another touchdown drive, this one mostly accomplished through the ground game; Maye would run this one in from three yards out. From there, though, the UNC offense stalled, and the Cavaliers ran off ten straight points to tie the game going into the fourth quarter: a drive down the field capped off by another Hollins red-zone touchdown, then a field goal after a Maginess punt went just 16 yards for a drive that started in field goal range even after UVA failed to make a first down. On their next opportunity, UNC appeared to have another big-play touchdown, but a 50-yard pass to J.J. Jones in the end zone was wiped away by a questionable holding call on Kamari Morales. The Heels overcame it and marched into the red zone before stalling, leading to another Burnette field goal, this one from 27 yards out.

Having seized momentum, Virginia marched down the field again, and this time got into the end zone through the air with a 14-yard touchdown reception by Malik Washington on a drive where the defense looked as helpless as it has all year. The UNC offense couldn’t do anything with a chance to get back on top, and as UVA marched down the field again, it looked like they might be able to put the game away with just 5 minutes left. Fate briefly smiled on UNC, though, as the Cavaliers once again gave the ball away in the end zone, this time via a fumble. UNC drove down the field after the touchback, but couldn’t punch it in once they got to the 10-yard line, and turned it over on downs. The defense gave the Heels one last shot with 72 seconds left and no timeouts, but after a few nice gains, Maye was hit as he threw and intercepted, sealing the loss.

Drake Maye had another off day, completing 24/48 passes for 347 yards, two scores, and the game-ending pick. On the receiving end, Tez Walker continued his excellent season with 11 catches for 146 yards and his score, but he was unable to come up with a pass that would have converted a red-zone fourth down late in the game. On defense, there wasn’t much to be happy about, but Cedric Gray set a career high with 18 tackles. The Heels will look to regroup and avoid embarrassment both for the second week and second year in a row as they visit Atlanta next Saturday and try to keep their ACC Championship hopes alive.