CHAPEL HILL — A frustrating season of mistakes, missteps and close losses came to an end in the only it could possibly could have ended for the North Carolina football team on Saturday.
With a series of mistakes, missteps and yet another agonizingly close loss.
This time it was an all-too-familiar 34-28 overtime defeat at the hands of rival NC State at Kenan Stadium that like previous setbacks to Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Duke, could easily have been a win with just a little better luck or execution.
“It stinks,” said senior linebacker Cole Holcomb, his voice cracking after his final college game. “As a player, this is a game you put everything into and to have it end like that, it hurts.”
As painful as the loss might have been, neither the outcome — sealed on Reggie Gallaspy’s school-record fifth touchdown run of the day — nor the way it came about were hardly unexpected.
UNC (2-9, 1-7 ACC) did everything it could to self-destruct in a first half that featured surprise starting quarterback Cade Fortin underthrowing an open receiver behind the State defense on the game’s opening play, five dropped passes and a one-yard punt out of the end zone that gift wrapped the Wolfpack’s first touchdown.
Despite all that, State (8-3, 5-3) let the Tar Heels hang around on a dreary afternoon shrouded in gray with the occasional downpour. A pair of Freeman Jones field goals kept UNC within just one at 7-6 at halftime before both offenses finally began getting their act together.
Fortin, in particular, came to life after a dismal 2 of 12 start.
The freshman, who had played only 49 previous snaps all season and has been sidelined since suffering a knee injury against Virginia Tech on Oct. 13, threw for 276 yards and led his team to three second half touchdowns and a two-point conversion.
“In that second half we had a little juice,” Fortin said. “The coaches and players got us hyped up in the locker room, so we were ready to go out in the second half.”
Fortin also ran for a touchdown, a 1-yard keeper around left end that gave the Tar Heels their first lead of the game at 28-21 with 9:29 remaining.
UNC then got a chance to open up a two-score lead and potentially put the game away following a defensive stop, but as has happened so many times this season, it couldn’t take advantage of the situation.
“We didn’t make enough plays to win a football game,” said coach Larry Fedora after what could have been his final game with the Tar Heels. “We left a lot of points out there on the field,”
Instead of putting State into a deeper hole, the Tar Heels went three-and-out and gave the ball right back to its rival. Four plays, a correctly reversed call and a pass interference play later, the Wolfpack was in the end zone with the tying touchdown.
At that point, you could almost feel the air of inevitability begin to shroud the half empty stands.
“Coming so close in so many games,” senior safety J.K. Britt said. “We’ve had two games this year that we went to overtime and we’ve lost games on the last play of the game, last drive. It’s just frustration being this close every time and not being able to capitalize.”
That frustration began to mount as UNC failed to pick up a first down on its overtime possession and Jones missed a 37-yard field goal wide right. It finally boiled over after Gallaspy powered in from the one to put an end to the game and the season.
A scuffle ensued in the end zone after Gallaspy’s game winner. Although punches were thrown by players on both sides, Fedora refused to call it a fight.
“Their team was celebrating in our end zone,” Fedora said. “That’s what was happening. There wasn’t any fight to my knowledge.”
The embattled coach’s comprehension of the situation was even more fuzzy when it came to his future at UNC.
Speculation is running rampant that he will be fired, perhaps as early as Sunday. But when asked directly about his job security in his postgame press conference, Fedora said answered simply: “I don’t know. We’ll find out,” before adding that “I’m planning on being here.”
Regardless of whether Fedora and his staff are given the opportunity to turn things around next year, Britt said that the status quo isn’t working after just five wins over the past two losing seasons.
“I’m not sure what the change needs to be, but something has to change for us to get to where we want to be,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll get it figured out next year and all the close games will go in our favor.”