North Carolina outgained Virginia by more than 100 yards and scored 41 points but couldn’t overcome its mistakes in a 44-41 loss in Charlottesville that all but ended its hopes for a spot in the ACC Championship Game.
The Cavaliers countered a 443-yard, four-touchdown performance by Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell to score four unanswered touchdowns — two before halftime and two after — to turn a seven-point deficit into a three-score lead. Two of those touchdowns came as a direct result of UNC turnovers.
Trailing 41-20 late in the third quarter, the 15th-ranked Tar Heels (4-2, 4-2 ACC) attempted to rally. They got as close as a field goal with 2:51 remaining on a pair of touchdown passes from Howell to Dyami Brown, who had 11 catches for 240 yards and three scores. But as was the case in its other loss two weeks ago at Florida State, UNC saw its rally short-circuited by its mistakes.
The win was UVa’s fourth straight in the South’s Oldest Rivalry.
1. Despite all its mistakes, UNC appeared to give itself one final chance to pull the game out with just over two minutes remaining when it forced UVa (2-4, 2-4 ACC) into a fourth-and-4 situation on the Cavaliers’ side of the field. But the Tar Heels’ special teams got caught napping when backup quarterback Keytaon Thompson took a short snap on a fake punt and gained a first down to put the victory away.
2. The Tar Heels were a comedy of errors late in the first half and early in the second. Things started to unravel when Toe Groves muffed a punt that UVa recovered and turned into the go-ahead touchdown.
Then, after driving the length of the field to the Cavaliers 2-yard line in the final minute of the half, Javonte Williams couldn’t handle Howell’s backward pass. It cost UNC a chance of at least a field goal attempt when the clock ran out as the teams scrambled for the loose ball. And things snowballed from there. The Cavaliers scored on the opening drive of the second half before converting a Howell fumble into another touchdown to open up a three-score lead late in the third quarter.
3. UNC got the short end of an official’s call early in the second quarter when Howell was hit as he prepared to throw on a third down play from inside the UVa 20. The ball popped loose, prompting one official to throw his beanbag signifying a fumble and a live ball. Howell alertly tracked the ball down and took it into the end zone for what should have been a Tar Heels touchdown. But the play was eventually ruled an incomplete pass.
Upon review, the call was reversed. But instead of getting the touchdown, it was ruled that the ball would be placed where Howell recovered it at the 14-yard line. Following further discussion, referee Stuart Mullins ruled that because the play was halted by an inadvertent whistle, UNC would have the option of taking the ball at the spot or replaying the down from the original line of scrimmage. Since it would have been fourth down, the Tar Heels opted for the do-over. When that play didn’t gain a first down, UNC settled for a Grayson Atkins field goal that tied the score at 13.
Numbers to know
536-418 — The margin by which the Tar Heels outgained UVa in the game. It’s an advantage UNC built despite running 12 fewer plays than the Cavaliers and averaging three more yards per play. Four of the Tar Heels’ five touchdown drives took less than two minutes to complete.
Player of the game
Charles Snowden, Virginia linebacker — Snowden was in the UNC backfield almost as much as the Tar Heels. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound senior sacked Sam Howell four times in the game, including one early in the second half that forced the UNC quarterback to fumble. Snowden finished the game with 10 tackles.
They said it
“I’m really proud of the kids and the coaches that they fought to hang in there, down 21 and have a chance to win. Now like at Florida State, we’ve got to start winning these games that are close at the end. It’s not good enough to fight back and be close. Close doesn’t help you. You’ve got to win.”
— UNC coach Mack Brown
A week after playing its best game to date in a rout of NC State, the inconsistency that has haunted the Tar Heels all season came back to bite them again. As was the case at Florida State on Oct. 17, coach Mack Brown’s team had no one to blame but itself for losing to a team that had won just one game previously, committing a pair of costly turnovers, two key mental lapses and an inability to stop the run.
Among UNC’s other recurring problems is its inability to force turnovers. Of its six takeaways coming into the game, four came last Saturday against the Wolfpack. It only had one against a UVa team that had committed 13 turnovers in its first five games. And despite Howell’s big passing numbers, his offensive line underperformed again by giving up five sacks.
Although there’s still enough season left for the Tar Heels to clean up their mistakes and learn to put together consistent efforts, the two early losses have all but ended UNC’s hopes of living up to its high preseason expectations and qualifying to play in the ACC Championship Game.