RALEIGH — Down to just two available linebackers and forced to improvise, North Carolina’s much-maligned defense spent the better part of three quarters Saturday doing everything in its power to bottle up and frustrate NC State’s skilled offense.
Then, in the span of just 109 seconds, all that effort went out the window with two pivotal plays by Nyheim Hines.
The Wolfpack star broke off touchdown runs of 54 and 48 yards wrapped around the third quarter break to erase a lead the Tar Heels had been nursing since early in the game and help State pull away for a 33-21 victory at Carter-Finley Stadium.
It was hardly an unexpected result for a UNC team that entered the game as a double-digit underdog and finished the year at 3-9 (1-7 ACC). But that didn’t make the loss any less frustrating for team that came into the rivalry game determined to salvage something positive from an otherwise lost season.
“It always comes down to a few plays that decide the game,” senior cornerback M.J. Stewart said of Hines’ decisive runs. “Those were two catastrophic plays we shouldn’t have given up.”
The first came with less than a minute remaining in the third period after a short punt by Hunter Lent gave the Wolfpack possession just shy of midfield.
With UNC clinging to a 14-12 lead it built on a pair of early Nathan Elliott touchdown passes, Hines took a handoff, found a seam and accelerated down the far sideline for the score that changed both the lead and the momentum of what to that point had been a defensive struggle.
Then after a diving interception by the State linebacker Airius Moore on the third play of the fourth quarter, Hines broke free again — this time cutting back to the middle of the field and going the distance to put the Wolfpack in charge for the first time in the game.
“On the two long runs, I know on one for sure, it was a mis-fit,” said junior safety J.K. Britt. “They did something and we were supposed to check into a certain formation. We didn’t communicate across the board and that’s how they ended up getting the long run. On the other one, I’m not sure what happened.”
Hines finished the game with 196 yards on 22 carries, as the Wolfpack (8-4, 6-2) amassed 292 yards on the ground and 496 yards total.
Those numbers are deceiving, however, considering how hard the Tar Heels’ made their opponent work for its yardage prior to Hines’ two game-breaking runs. Coach Larry Fedora attributed the late breakdowns to his team “running out of gas.” More than a third of State’s yardage came on Hines’ two long runs and the game-clinching 13-play, 75-yard drive that used answered Elliott’s fourth quarter touchdown pass to Jordan Cunningham.
In all, UNC’s defense spent nearly 13 minutes more on the field than its Wolfpack counterparts thanks to an offense that sputtered through a stretch of six straight empty possessions.
Fedora and offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic had a hand in creating that time of possession disparity with some conservative third down play calling. It was a strategy that put the pressure to preserve the slim lead — which came about because of a pair of failed State extra points — squarely on the shoulders of their defense.
“We just didn’t score for awhile and kept getting three-and-outs. We have to be more efficient than that.” said quarterback Elliott, who completed 21 of 45 passes for 277 yards and three scores, but was intercepted twice. “We knew eventually we were going to get a score. It was just taking too long. We just couldn’t get going fast enough in the second half. If we did, maybe it would have been different.”
Or maybe State would eventually have figured out how best to attack an unconventional defense that was pieced together out of necessity after its two leading tacklers — linebackers Cole Holcomb and Cayson Collins — were lost to injuries in last week’s win against Western Carolina.
Because of the attrition, UNC dressed only three linebackers for the game.
“Last man standing,” said sophomore Jonathan Smith, who along with Dominique Ross and former walkon Hunter Crafford comprised the Tar Heels’ entire linebacking corps. “We had to go out and do our job.”
In order to help the trio out, the Tar Heels resorted to numerous hybrid packages, including one that had six defensive backs spread out across the field.
“The 11 guys we put out on the field, they fought and gave everything they had,” Fedora said afterward. “We had some guys out there that weren’t playing in positions they should be playing. But they did what they had to do to try to help this team win.
“We had to play more nickel and dime. We only brought three (linebackers), so when one of them went down for awhile we brought Allen Artis down there to play some linebacker for us. He hasn’t done that this year.”
According to Stewart, that unfamiliarity may have worked in UNC’s favor for awhile. But everything changed in the blink of an eye — or in the time it took for Nyheim Hines to break free for two long touchdown runs.