Ray Vohasek’s sack of North Carolina State quarterback Devin Leary late in the fourth quarter Friday seemed to signify a turning point in the season – albeit a late one – for the often porous Tar Heels defensive unit.
Forced to play most of the first quarter with its back against the wall thanks to two blocked punts by N.C. State, the UNC defense had held the Wolfpack to a lone touchdown since, while UNC quarterback Sam Howell seemingly willed the offense to 31 points.
With two minutes left and an 11-point lead, a long-awaited signature win for the Tar Heels (UNC was a 2.5-point favorite against Wake Forest) was all but certain – 99.9% according to ESPN’s win probability index.
It would have been a signature performance for the North Carolina defense; the kind of win that would pacify a fickle fanbase and reprieve a team that failed to live up to lofty expectations.
On the next play, however, Leary found wide receiver Emeka Emezie unaccounted for along the sideline and lobbed the ball his way for an easy 64-yard touchdown.
After a successful PAT, the Wolfpack were within a field goal.
With 1:35 to go, an onside kick seemed apparent to everyone except the Tar Heels. N.C. State recovered and just like that, the Wolfpack were in striking distance of field goal range.
After a false start penalty and an incomplete pass, NSCU had used precious seconds to move the ball backwards to its own 41-yard line, and the Tar Heels again had the advantage.
But UNC was subsequently flagged five yards for defensive offside; 15 for roughing the passer; and 15 for pass interference in a span of 14 seconds; and with a minute, 15 seconds to go, the Wolfpack had 1st-and-10 from the UNC 24.
Six seconds later, Leary found Emezie again, on what looked an awful lot like the same play that netted a touchdown seconds earlier; this time for a 24-yard, who-wants-it-more jump ball that 6-foot-3, 212-pound Emezie snagged over UNC defensive back Cam’Ron Kelly along the sideline and just inside the pylon for the game-winning touchdown.
Alas, instead of a turning point, the game was the epitome of North Carolina’s season of missed opportunities.
Here are some of the key things that plagued North Carolina’s forgettable 2021 campaign:
Season-Opening Loss at virginia tech
Coming into the season, the Tar Heels, looked poised to be a thoroughbred of the ACC. With Howell – the school’s most legitimate Heisman contender ever – under center, Carolina was the odds on favorite to challenge Clemson, in earnest, for the conference crown.
Ranked No. 10 in the preseason, the Tar Heels, and Howell in particular, looked spooked out of the gate. Howell had arguably his worst game as a Tar Heel, throwing three interceptions and never looking in sync with a new receiving corps.
Carolina would rebound in games two and three, but in retrospect the 17-10 loss proved a sign of things to come.
The irony is that it was the season’s best defensive performance from the Tar Heels; one of only two games in which they allowed the opposing offense fewer than 300 yards (the other was Georgia State).
Home loss against Florida State
It’s well known that arguably the best player in the history of UNC football almost never joined the program. An improbable chain of events had to take place to get Howell, a Charlotte native, to flip.
But flip he did, de-committing from Florida State and joining the Tar Heels just days after Carolina introduced Mack Brown’s return as head coach.
Even though that happened in 2018, the Seminoles, who still haven’t returned to their championship form following since Jimbo Fisher left town, weren’t keen on forgetting.
It was a trap game, and the Tar Heels took the bait. They looked out of sorts offensively and by the time the clock expired on a 35-25 home loss – UNC’s only home loss of the season – the remainder of the fan base holding on to the hype they bought into were suffering a serious sense of buyer’s remorse.
The team was 3-3, hadn’t really won anything that mattered, and faced a plethora of tough tests ahead.
zero wins on the road
For all the magic Brown seemed to have at home, the Tar Heels largely fell flat away from Kenan Stadium.
North Carolina strung together convincing victories in the two games that followed the disappointing season-opening loss at Virginia Tech before suffering arguably its ugliest loss of the year in a neutral site contest against Georgia Tech in September.
Four of UNC’s last five games were against ranked opponents. Three of those four were road games.
To be fair, it was a gauntlet of a homestretch.
To be honest, a better team would have seized the opportunity.
Instead, the Tar Heels went 2-3 in those games, winning its two home games – an improbable come-from-behind-win against Wake Forest and a pedestrian tilt against Wofford, sans Howell.
Its three losses during that stretch (to Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and N.C. State) were close, but such an argument doesn’t carry much weight in a year in which so much was expected.
Despite ranking 10th in the country in total offense, the Tar Heels ranked 101st in scoring defense, allowing 31.6 points per game. UNC gave up 35.8 in contests against teams not named Georgia State or Wofford, which would have dropped them to No. 120.
North Carolina’s opponents converted 40.9% of third downs and 58.8% of fourth downs, 88th and 89th in the nation, respectively.
The Tar Heels averaged 7.58 penalties for almost 72 yards per game, ranking them well outside the top 100 in both categories.
As was the case in the team’s regular season finale, UNC seemed to lack discipline, especially when it counted, and that proved costly considering five of the team’s losses were by 10 points or less.
The long and short of it: Who knows?
This sort of Well, what now? outlook is something Carolina fans should be used to by now.
As of Sunday night, Twitter was ablaze with unsubstantiated rumors. To be sure, there are some positions to evaluate on the coaching staff. That makes sense following a year like the one the Tar Heels just had.
Recruiting, though, is the linchpin of college football, and there’s no question that Mack Brown has Carolina in the strongest position it’s been in in years. Championships aren’t going to be won overnight, and while the season was a disappointment, that such high expectations were justifiable to begin with is something fans shouldn’t be so quick to forget.
Establishing a college football program that wins consistently starts with recruiting and by definition takes years to come to fruition.
There is still a significant level of intrigue surrounding the program, and it will take patience to build a consistent contender.