CHAPEL HILL — Larry Fedora held his fingers about an inch apart following Saturday’s 22-19 loss to Virginia Tech.
“We’re that far away,” the North Carolina football coach said with a frustrated look on his face.
While it’s true that Fedora’s team came agonizingly close to pulling off a win that might have turned its disjoined season around, he’s a little off on the margin. Rather than an inch, the difference between winning and losing was one full yard on either end of the Kenan Stadium field.
It was the yard running back Michael Carter wasn’t able to get for the clinching touchdown before fumbling into the end zone on the Tar Heels’ final possession. Then, 18 plays and nearly six minutes later, it was the yard UNC’s defense couldn’t prevent the Hokies from getting with the game on the line.
Quarterback Ryan Willis hit tight end Dalton Keene with a 1-yard toss with just 19 seconds remaining to lead a dramatic comeback and hand the Tar Heels one of their most disheartening defeats in recent memory.
“We’re so close,” Fedora said. “And I want it for these guys. Because if you watch them practice, watch them in the meeting room and watch how much they care about each other, you can’t help but want it for them.
“We just have to find a way to get over the hump. We’ve got to find a way to get a guy to make a play in a certain situation.”
While Carter and the defense had the most visible late game chances to make that kind of winning play against the Hokies, they were hardly the only ones presented with such opportunities.
With only a little bit of execution in the red zone, UNC (1-4, 1-2 ACC) could have — and probably should have — won the game easily.
“When we get down in the red zone, we’ve got to smell the end zone and we’ve got to want to get there in the worst way,” Fedora said. “We’ve got to find a way to get it done.”
The Tar Heels outgained Tech by a 522-375 margin. They had two runs of 49 yards by Carter and an 80-yard pass play from starter-turned-backup quarterback Nathan Elliott to Carl Tucker. They drove inside the Hokies’ 26-yard line nine times.
And yet, despite all that, they only scored one touchdown.
Even at that, they still would have won the game had Freeman Jones made all six of his school-record tying field goal attempts. But the usually accurate kicker missed twice, from 43 and 32 yards, leaving the door open for Tech to rally late and steal the victory.
“We just left too many opportunities out there,” said Elliott, who went 11 of 15 for 147 yards and a touchdown in the second half after taking over for injured freshman starter Cade Fortin.
“We had to score touchdowns instead of field goals. We’ve got to finish drives when we’re in the scoring zone and we can’t turn the ball over. If we don’t make a couple of mistakes, we win that game.”
The mistakes began on the first play of the game when Antonio Williams fumbled the ball away battling for extra yardage. Tech (4-2, 3-0 ACC) scored four plays later to take a quick 7-0 lead.
That, however, was the last points the Hokies would score for nearly 2½ quarters against a Tar Heels defense bolstered by the return of ends Malik Carney and Tomon Fox from suspension, and tackle Aaron Crawford and safety Myles Dorn from injury.
The offense, however, was only able to take partial advantage of the situation.
UNC’s first foray into the red zone was derailed by a bad snap that led to a 33-yard Jones field goal. Two possessions later, a Carter touchdown run was nullified by a holding penalty, forcing the Tar Heels to settle for a 30-yarder by Jones.
Jones then missed from 43 yards after a sack stalled another drive before he converted from 22 yards just before halftime after a false start penalty turned a first-and-goal at the 7 into a long yardage situation.
Although the field goal put UNC ahead 9-7, the possession proved costly when Fortin was injured scrambling for yardage on a third down play. The youngster, who was just starting to look comfortable, didn’t return, finishing 10 of 18 for 97 yards to go along with 44 yards rushing on six carries.
“The kid came in and did some really good things,” Fedora said of Fortin. “I thought he was very poised. There were not too many times where I thought he was worried about the rush. He did a really good job of taking care of the football when he threw the ball and took the ball where it was supposed to go.”
Elliott, the much-maligned junior, was nearly as good after coming on in relief. He drove the Tar Heels for their only touchdown, connecting with Anthony Ratliff-Williams on a 3-yard fade, early in the third quarter, before getting his team in position for two field goal attempts.
Then with his team backed up on its own 7, he hit Tucker across the middle for the big play that put UNC in position to put the game away. But on a first-and-goal play from the one, the Tar Heels came away empty again when te helmet of Tech safety Tyree Rodgers knocked the ball out of Carter’s grasp.
“It was just a good hit,” said Carter, who rushed for 165 of his team’s 235 yards. “I wasn’t low enough. He was low to me and in football, low man wins. He got me.”
Even with the turnover, the Hokies still had to go 98 yards for the winning score. They did it methodically on 18 plays while using up almost the entire clock, converting four third downs and one critical fourth down along the way. The fourth down conversion was a 12-yard scramble by Willis on a play in which he looked to be trapped by a UNC rush that sacked him four times in the game.
“It’s tough sitting there watching it happen,” Elliott said. “Our defense played great all game and they should never have been put in that position.”
That, linebacker Cole Holcomb said, still doesn’t let the defense off the hook for failing to get one last stop.
“I think we played 58 minutes of good football,” linebacker Cole Holcomb said. “Then we just didn’t finish. That’s what it came down to.”