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With less than nine minutes remaining in regulation, North Carolina trailed the Hurricanes by 17 points. Solid defense against a conservative second-half Miami offensive approach allowed the Tar Heels to charge back and put the final outcome in doubt.
Giovani Bernard (27 rushes, 110 yards, TD) scored from three yards out with 8:19 left to play to cut UNC's deficit to 27-17. Jake Wieclaw drilled a 28-yard field goal to expand Miami's lead six minutes later, but the Tar Heels answered with a Bryn-Renner-to-Reggie-Wilkins 20-yard touchdown pass with 46 seconds remaining.
A successful onside kick provided North Carolina with an opportunity to claim victory, but a critical sack and a failed gimmick play as time ran out ended the game with UNC on Miami's 24-yard-line.
That ending seemed unlikely after the Hurricanes dominated the first half.
Miami (3-3) drove 71 yards for a touchdown on its opening 13-play drive as Jacory Harris (20-of-30 passing, 267 yards, 3 TD) connected with Mike James for a 4-yard touchdown pass. Harris then delivered a 27-yard scoring strike to a wide-open Tommy Streeter (4 catches, 99 yards) just 14 seconds later after a T.J. Thorpe fumble on UNC's kickoff return.
Wieclaw added a 41-yard field goal to give the Hurricanes a 17-0 lead after the first quarter.
Thomas Moore notched his first field goal of the season with a 20-yarder to put UNC (5-2) on the board, but Wieclaw answered with a 43-yard kick on Miami's ensuing drive. The Hurricanes opened up a 27-3 margin when Travis Benjamin (8 catches, 99 yards, TD) beat cornerback Jabari Price for a 30-yard touchdown pass with 5:17 remaining until halftime.
North Carolina closed the half with a 13-play, 56-yard drive that ended with Bryn Renner finding Dwight Jones (9 catches, 65 yards, TD) for a 4-yard touchdown pass.
UNC outgained Miami 429-to-311, including a 252-48 advantage in the second half, but lost the turnover battle, 2-0.
INSIDE THE GAME
Fired Up for Kickoff… Or Not?
North Carolina has thrived this season on dominating the first quarter, outscoring its opponents 42-3. Miami either failed to get that memo or simply tore it up upon arrival as the Hurricanes took the field in attack mode and built a 17-0 lead after 15 minutes of play.
Miami ran 24 plays for 149 yards, notched nine first downs, converted 3-of-5 third-down opportunities, forced one turnover and soaked up over 10 minutes of the clock. UNC only ran 12 plays for 75 yards as its offense didn't take its first snap until the Hurricanes had already built a 14-0 lead.
Most troubling for the Tar Heels is that no one seemed to have an answer for why the team has come out sluggish two weeks in a row.
"I don't know why – sometimes you're good in the first half, sometimes you're not," safety Matt Merletti said.
Fan support hasn't been something to brag about at Kenan Stadium this season, but junior linebacker Kevin Reddick refused to point the blame in that direction.
"You don't need motivation for games like this," Reddick said. "I don't know what it was. Maybe we'll find out [on Sunday] when we go watch film. I don't know. We've just got to have the mindset to take off fast."
When asked about several players suggesting they didn't feel ready for the game on Saturday, head coach Everett Withers responded, "I take the blame for that if they weren't ready."
Withers stressed that he didn't feel as though the team practiced any different than normal last week.
A Difficult Maturation Process
Bryn Renner entered Saturday's game as the ACC leader in passing efficiency (177.6, 4th nationally) with a stat line of 99-of-133 passing for 1,305 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. The red-shirt sophomore's stats against Miami will only further secure those rankings – 29-of-37 passing, 288 yards, two touchdowns – but most observers will focus on his struggles in the two-minute drill with the game on the line.
In the loss to Georgia Tech on Sept. 24, Renner took several ill-advised sacks in the final minutes as the Tar Heels were trailing by seven points.
On Saturday, UNC found new life with 45 seconds left as Curtis Campbell recovered an onside kick to give the Tar Heels a chance to win with a touchdown from 56 yards away. Renner completed a 15-yard pass to Jones and an 11-yard pass to Bernard to move North Carolina to Miami's 30-yard-line, but with no timeouts and the clock winding down, he was sacked for a seven-yard loss.
By the time Renner got the offense back to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball, only seven seconds and one desperation play was all that was available for the Tar Heels.
"I just can't take those sacks," Renner said. "I don't know what we can do in practice to make it any better. We do it every day. And I guess the more experience I get in those types of situations, the best decisions I'll make, but that falls on my [shoulders]."
Withers said he would "keep harping on it" to improve Renner's decision-making process in those late-game situations.
"You don't have to make every play," Withers said. "Throw it away. Don't take a sack. [He's] a young quarterback trying to make every play. He wants to win. Here's a guy competing and fighting and out there on one leg half the time wanting to win, so I'm not ever going to take that away from him, that competitiveness that he has. But we've got to help him as coaches. I've got to do a better job of saying, ‘Hey, this is when you need to throw the ball away.'"
Bend, Don't Break Just Broke
During his radio call-in show on Wednesday, Withers explained why UNC's defense often sends a three-man rush while dropping eight in certain passing downs.
"It's the hardest thing for a quarterback to adjust to because he's not used to that extra guy being in the zone," the interim head coach said.
Safety Gene Robinson admitted during that show that the defense stresses a "bend, don't break" mentality on a daily basis.
Withers has been able defend UNC's yardage allowance this season (386.5 ypg, 72nd nationally) by pointing to a top-20 scoring defense (18.5 ppg), but Miami exploited UNC defensive coordinator Art Kaufman's preference to set his cornerbacks roughly 10 yards off the line of scrimmage with swing passes and quick hits into the flat and Harris capitalized on UNC's ineffective three-man pass rushes to churn out 263 yards and 27 points in the first half.
Miami scored on all five of its possessions in the opening 30 minutes.
For a more in-depth analysis of North Carolina's defensive woes against the Hurricanes, click here.