CHAPEL HILL — How fine is the line between winning and losing in college football?
For North Carolina on Saturday it was the width of M.J. Stewart’s foot. Or a missed tackle near the line of scrimmage. Or a facemask penalty that wasn’t called.
Or all of the above.
They’re the kind of breaks that go a team’s way when things are going well and don’t when things aren’t.
And things aren’t going well for the Tar Heels these days.
They’re close calls that, combined with an inability to sustain drives and get off the field defensively, contributed greatly a 20-14 loss to Virginia at Kenan Stadium — UNC’s sixth setback in seven games of a rapidly deteriorating 2017 season.
“When things aren’t going your way, it’s always the little things,” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said afterward. “There are a lot of those things that happen out there in a game. But when things aren’t going your way they’re magnified. Somebody’s got to make one of those plays in a tight game like that and we didn’t do that.”
For a moment midway through the fourth quarter, it appeared as though Stewart might be the player to step forward and turn his team’s fortunes around.
With UNC trailing by six on a second-and-8 play near midfield, linebacker Cayson Collins jarred the ball loose from UVA running back Chris Sharp as he turned the corner along the near sideline. Stewart alertly picked the ball up and began speeding into the open field for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown.
The only problem is that Stewart’s foot was out of bounds when he recovered the fumble, not only nullifying the potential score, but also allowing the Cavaliers to maintain possession.
“I knew I was close to the sideline. I thought I was inbounds,” the senior cornerback said. “That’s a missed big opportunity on my part. I’ve got have a little more football IQ and know where I am on the field.”
That missed opportunity allowed UVA (5-1, 2-0 ACC) to maintain possession for eight more plays and run five more precious minutes off the clock before UNC’s defense produced a big play that counted.
A Malik Carney sack of Kurt Benkert led to a Collins fumble recovery that gave the Tar Heels hope with 2:56 remaining. But after gaining two first downs, hope turned to disappointment again when backup quarterback Brandon Harris — who got the start in place of freshman Chazz Surratt under mysterious circumstances — was sacked on fourth down with just over a minute remaining.
Two plays earlier, Harris missed an open Anthony Ratliff-Williams in the end zone. Even then, UNC’s last chance to pull the game out might have been extended had officials noticed Virginia’s Chris Peace get his hand on Harris’ facemask as he brought him down on the final play.
But those are the breaks that usually seem to go the wrong way for teams like the Tar Heels, who have now lost six straight on their home field dating back to last season.
“We were hit-and-miss, hit-and-miss,” Harris said. “We had opportunities to make plays down the field. We just were off. We just weren’t in a groove.”
Harris, in particular, had a hard time getting anything going. He completed only seven of his 18 passes for 46 yards and was intercepted three times — giving him six for the season in only 60 attempts.
The graduate transfer wouldn’t say when he found out he was going to start, adding another layer of intrigue to a suddenly uncertain quarterback situation.
Reports before the game indicated that Surratt, a redshirt freshman who has started the past five games, was not feeling well. But after the game, Fedora said the decision to start Harris was made during the week in practice and that Surratt would have been available if needed.
Regardless of who was under center, it was a veteran tight end that provided the Tar Heels with a badly needed spark in the locker room at halftime after his team managed just a paltry 75 yards on 25 offensive plays while going scoreless through the first two quarters.
“Brandon Fritts gave a passionate halftime talk and we came out with a different vibe,” freshman running back Michael Carter said. “He wanted to reiterate that we weren’t playing up to the standard of Carolina football. It was just a matter of stepping up in the second half.”
Carter took Fritts’ words to heart on the second play of the second half when he broke through left tackle and accelerated for a 56-yard gain. Two carries later, he dove into the end zone for UNC’s first score of the game to cut UVA’s lead to to 10-7.
Not long after, Carter didn’t let anyone run him down by going 47 yards around left end for a touchdown that put the Tar Heels ahead 14-10.
“All I do is run,” said Carter, who finished with 157 yards for the first 100-yard game of his career. “The O-line, the receivers block. They do a great job. All I have to do is find open space.”
The lead was UNC’s first since the fourth quarter of its loss to Duke on Sept. 23, 10 quarters earlier. But the momentum and the good feelings didn’t last long.
After a punt pinned UVA back on its own 19 late in the third quarter, Benkert hit running back Olamide Zaccheaus for what appeared to be a harmless swing pass out of the backfield.
It turned out to be anything but harmless when Myles Dorn missed a tackle that allowed Zaccheaus to turn a short gain into a big play. When Stewart missed another tackle downfield, the play turned into an 81-yard touchdown that turned out to be the difference in the game.
The breakdown spoiled an otherwise effective performance that yielded its fewest points of the season, but got worn down by a time of possession disparity that saw the Cavaliers run 25 more plays and hold the ball for nearly 20 more minutes than their opponent.
“I feel like we played pretty decent on defense,” Stewart said. “It’s always a few plays every game that we break down. Whether that’s missed tackles or catastrophic plays, it’s always a few plays that end up biting us every time.”
As usually happens to teams when things aren’t going well.