Tar Heels their own worst enemy in loss to Wolfpack

Dressed in all black, which turned out to be an omen of things to come, UNC got off to a self-destructive start and could never seem to get out of its own way against a Wolfpack squad motivated by its final opportunity to gain bowl eligibility

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
North Carolina running back Elijah Hood (34) dives for an incomplete pass at Kenan Stadium Friday

CHAPEL HILL — The good news for the North Carolina football team is that it doesn’t have to spend its Saturday off watching Virginia Tech play and hoping for a miracle. That’s about the only positive the Tar Heels can take away from a 28-21 Senior Day loss to rival NC State on Friday that ended any hope they had of winning a second straight ACC Coastal Division championship. Dressed in all black, which turned out to be an omen of things to come, UNC got off to a self-destructive start and could never seem to get out of its own way against a Wolfpack squad motivated by its final opportunity to gain bowl eligibility. The loss was the second in the last three weeks for the Tar Heels, who needed a victory and a Virginia Tech loss to Virginia on Saturday to get back to the ACC Championship Game next week. The other was to Duke, which like the Wolfpack, came into the game as a decided underdog. “I don’t know how to explain it,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “That was disappointing, especially because it’s ordinary plays we needed to make. We dropped too many balls. We didn’t have to do anything superhuman today. We just needed to execute and play football, and we didn’t do that.” UNC’s performance and the unexpected result was reminiscent of the last time State came to Kenan Stadium on Senior Day, a 35-7 beatdown in 2014. On this occasion, the tone was set by the approach taken by the opposing coaches. While the Tar Heels’ Fedora played it safe, twice punting the ball away from the Wolfpack’s side of midfield, his State counterpart Dave Doeren dug into his bag of tricks and twice caught UNC flat-footed. The first came on an option pass by fullback Jaylen Samuels to a wide open Stephen Louis for a 59-yard touchdown that put the Wolfpack up 7-0. The second came later in the first quarter when quarterback Ryan Finley hit tight end Cole Cook for a big gain on a flea flicker. Even though that big play was nullified by a penalty, State’s aggressiveness clearly rattled a UNC defense that nearly pitched a shutout one week earlier against The Citadel. The Tar Heels’ normally high-powered offense wasn’t much better. A Trubisky fumble on the opening play of UNC’s second possession helped set up a short Wolfpack touchdown drive. His receivers also had a hard time holding onto the ball, as the usually reliable Bug Howard, Austin Proehl and Elijah Hood all dropped passes — including one by Proehl that would have extended a drive near midfield. Instead, UNC punted. Four plays later, State was in the end zone again for a 21-0 lead. The Tar Heels did get a break, thanks to a Wolfpack fumble that set up their first touchdown of the day — a four-yard toss from Trubisky to Ryan Switzer. But with the exception of that one 33-yard drive, the only fight UNC showed in the first half was when there was an actual fight on the field. Defensive tackle Jalen Dalton was ejected during the bench-clearing melee that followed a State fumble later ruled to be an incomplete pass. It wasn’t until it was too late before the Tar Heels finally began battling back in a more constructive manner. Even then, UNC proved to be its own worst enemy. On the second half kickoff, it appeared to recover an onside kick. But upon review, it was ruled that linebacker Ayden Bonilla was blocking before the ball went the required 10 yards, resulting in a penalty that forced the Tar Heels to re-kick. It was the same call that cost them a similar recovery earlier this season at Miami. UNC also wasted an opportunity inside the State 10 late in the third quarter by running a direct snap to running back T.J. Logan on third down, then attempting a trick play in which Switzer threw incomplete to Trubisky on fourth. “We just shot ourselves in the foot too many times, offense and defense,” cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “When we needed plays, we just didn’t make them.” Things finally started turning around two minutes into the final period when Trubisky hit Thomas Jackson for a four-yard touchdown. The junior quarterback then hooked up with Howard on a 48-yard scoring strike to bring UNC back to within one score with plenty of time remaining. But unlike earlier rallies against Pittsburgh and Florida State, the Tar Heels couldn’t finish the job this time. Their final drive ended with Trubisky missing an open Proehl on third down and the ball getting knocked out of Howard’s fingertips as he hit the ground on a fourth-and-20 play with just over three minutes remaining. “Those are two plays that stand out in my mind right now,” said Trubisky, who went 23 of 38 for 280 yards and three touchdowns. . “I put it on me. The one got a little wide from me for Proehl and I missed him. And Bug had one-on-one on the boundary and I overshot him a little bit. Sometimes they’re going to make amazing grabs, sometimes they’re not. I’ve got to help them out by making better throws. It just didn’t go our way.”