WINSTON-SALEM — Given the personalities of the teams involved, it was almost inevitable that the game would end with a furious comeback and a result that wasn’t determined until the final play.
And that’s just the way it played out Friday when ACC rivals Wake Forest and North Carolina met one another in a game that didn’t count in the ACC standings.
The Tar Heels stayed in character by roaring from three scores down in the fourth quarter while the Deacons did what they do best by holding on for dear life at the wire. In the end, UNC finally ran out of comebacks — in part because running back Michael Carter didn’t run out of bounds in time — allowing Wake to squeak out a 24-18 victory before a near-capacity crowd at BB&T Field.
“We really should have put that game away in the fourth quarter, but that’s what they’ve done all year,” Deacons coach Dave Clawson said after watching his team improve to 3-0 on the young season. “They just come back, they come back. But credit to our guys. That last drive we had was huge.
“It’s not exactly how we draw it up at the end. We never do it the easy way, but to our credit we play hard, we battle for four quarters and we found a way.”
The drive to which Clawson referred was a 12-play, 61-yard march that used up all but 69 seconds of the final six minutes. It was a possession that was kept alive by quarterback Jamie Newman, who used his arm to convert a second-and-16 situation early and his legs to scramble for a first down late to keep the clock moving.
Although it only resulted in a Nick Sciba field goal, leaving the door open for the hard-charging Tar Heels, the drive forced UNC to use all three of its timeouts and forced coach Mack Brown’s team to score a touchdown to pull out a third straight improbable win.
The fact that the Tar Heels were close enough to even think about stealing another victory, as they did previously against South Carolina and Miami, may have been the biggest surprise of the night.
Wake dominated the early going and appeared ready to run up a huge offensive number against its injury-depleted in-state foe.
With Newman scoring on two bruising touchdown runs, then hitting favorite target Sage Surratt for a 51-yard scoring strike on one side of the ball and a defense recording six sacks on the other, the Deacons rolled out to a 21-0 lead after just 18 minutes of play.
They threatened to get even more, but on a fourth-and-1 play from the UNC 6, running back Kenneth Walker was stopped for no gain after taking a direct snap.
The play turned out to be pivotal in that it completely halted Wake’s momentum. It also helped keep the game within reach for when the Tar Heels finally began to gain some rhythm of their own a little more than a quarter later.
“We just started to feel like ourselves again,” UNC quarterback Sam Howell said. “First half we didn’t feel like ourselves, but most of that was because of me. I didn’t play very well in the first half. We just fought as hard as we could in the second half and we just ran out of time.”
Howell shook off a nightmare start in which he was briefly benched in favor of Jace Ruder to throw for 182 yards on 17-of-28 passing.
UNC (2-1) pulled to within three points of the lead on a Noah Ruggles field goal, an 11-yard reception from Howell to Carter and a 17-yard touchdown pass from Howell to Dyami Brown that was followed by a successful two-point conversion with plenty of time still remaining.
“I wouldn’t say I was expecting it, but when it was happening, I wasn’t surprised,” Wake safety Nassir Greer said of the late UNC rally. “I watched the film from Miami and how they came back against South Carolina, and we were like, ‘This is going to be a 60-minute game’ and we were going to have to fight to the end.”
That’s nothing new considering that in Newman’s seven career starts — six of them wins — three of them have come down to the final play. It did again Friday. Only this time the junior quarterback, who threw for 214 yards and rushed for 78 more, was standing on the sideline when the drama unfolded.
It happened on a fourth-and-short one play after Howell completed a pass to himself and failed to get a first down that would have stopped the clock. Instead of trying a Hail Mary from near midfield, the Tar Heels attempted a running play. Carter successfully got the first down but, in his effort to gain yardage, failed to make it out of bounds before time expired.
Although it was close, the play wasn’t reviewed and the game was ruled over.
“I thought I got out of bounds, but I’m not trippin’,” said Carter, who rushed for 63 of his 96 yards in the fourth quarter.
Carter took the blame for cutting it so close, saying that he thought it was going to be the last play of the game.
“I hate it and I feel bad,” he said. “I kind of slowed down to try and set the blocks up. If I’d have run straight out of bounds, we probably would have had three seconds left. But I thought it was going to be the last play of the game. That was a mental error by me.”