Premature celebration comes back to haunt Tar Heels

According to linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel, UNC got 'too excited, too early,' opening the door for a miracle comeback by rival NC State

UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel walks off the field dejectedly after the Tar Heels' 34-30 loss to NC State on Saturday (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

RALEIGH — The North Carolina football team waited a long time this season for something to celebrate.

As it turned out, the Tar Heels didn’t wait long enough.

The festivities on the sideline began with 2:12 left on the clock at Carter-Finley Stadium when Grayson Atkins snuck a 50-yard field goal over the crossbar to give UNC a seemingly insurmountable nine-point lead on archrival NC State.

But the Wolfpack crashed the party by scoring two touchdowns just 26 seconds apart, sandwiched around an onside kick recovery, to hand the Tar Heels an improbable 34-30 defeat — their most stunning, frustrating loss in a season full of heartbreaks, close calls and unfulfilled expectations.

“When we knocked that field goal through, guys on the sideline got too eager, too excited, too early,” linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel admitted after his team finished its regular season winless in five road games this season. “And that really ended up to bite us on the butt.

“I think guys thought the game was won, thought the game was over with maybe two minutes on the clock. That’s what really caught us at the end of the game, a lack of focus because we thought we had the game won.”

That lack of focus manifested itself in a series of mistakes that opened the door for the Wolfpack to rally.

The first came on the ensuing kickoff.

While the Tar Heels succeeded in keeping the ball away from Zonovan Knight, who had returned kicks for touchdowns in each of the previous two games, they allowed State’s other returner, Jordan Houston, to bring the ball back 37 yards to near midfield.

Then after sacking quarterback Devin Leary for the fifth time on the first play of the drive, they let the Wolfpack’s all-time leading receiver, Emeka Emezie, get wide open behind the defense for a quick 64-yard touchdown.

“We had a busted coverage,” Gemmel said.

And things only went downhill from there. 

Needing only to recover the onside kick to seal the victory, UNC allowed State to regain possession when defensive back Trey Morrison failed to come up with the ball. allowing Wolfpack kicker Christopher Dunn to recover it.

Three penalties and 35 yards later, State was already in field goal range when Emezie outjumped safety Cam’Ron Kelly for a Leary pass in the end zone for the go-ahead 24-yard touchdown with 1:09 left.

It was the second time in the last three games that UNC had let a win against one of the ACC’s top teams slip away late. It lost at Pittsburgh 30-23 in overtime on Nov. 11.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “We had an opportunity to beat a really good team at Pittsburgh, one of the best in our league, and we didn’t finish it. We had a better opportunity tonight and we still didn’t finish it.”

While Brown blamed himself for this latest meltdown, saying that he’s “got to do a better job,” at least one of his players was pointing his finger elsewhere.

“It’s disappointing, obviously, just because we work on late-game situations so often,” Gemmel said. “It’s something we as players have to be accountable for. You can’t say it’s the coaches. They get us ready for those situations every single day.”

The dramatic final two minutes spoiled one of the Tar Heels’ most complete efforts of the season.

After getting a punt blocked for a touchdown on their opening possession and falling into an early 14-0 hole, they battled back to score 24 unanswered points to take a 10-point lead late in the third quarter.

They did it with a ground attack fueled by an unlikely source, former walk-on British Brooks — who rushed for a career-high 124 yards on 15 carries — and a defense that forced Leary to throw underneath by taking away his dangerous outside receivers.

Quarterback Sam Howell also did damage with his legs, rushing for 98 yards and two touchdowns while also throwing for 147 yards and another score. 

But when UNC had chances to put the game away in the fourth quarter, it was forced to settle for a pair of field goals rather than scoring touchdowns. That included a possession in which it had a first-and-goal situation from the Wolfpack 4-yard line.

“At the end of the day, it just comes down to us making a play,” Howell said. “There was a play to be made, but me, myself and us on offense as a whole didn’t make those plays tonight. That’s an area where we’ve kind of struggled all year.”

And the record shows it. 

When Howell’s final pass into the end zone was intercepted by State’s Derrek Pitts as time expired, it ended a regular season that started with UNC as the preseason Coastal Division favorite with a disappointing 6-6 record (3-5 ACC).

The Tar Heels will now wait to find out where their postseason destination will be.

“It’s crazy,” Howell said. “At the end of the day, it is what it is. It was definitely not a game we wanted to lose like that, but we’re going to keep our heads up high, get back to work and get ready for the bowl game.”