Considering the growing fans' clamour for any kind of win, a regression came as a surprise to many.
"We couldn't ask for a more perfect situation for us to get our first win," UNC coach John Bunting said. "We just went out there and didn't take advantage of the opportunity. That's very heartbreaking for me, and a lot of the players on this team."
UVA's Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman provided all but six of the Cavaliers' 229 rushing yards, and 2002 ACC Player of the Year Matt Schaub enjoyed ample protection, throwing for 284 yards and two touchdowns to lead UVA (4-1, 3-0 ACC) to 515 yards of total offensive domination.
"Schaub is a great quarterback," UNC linebacker Devllen Bullard said. "They just did basic things that we couldn't stop. It's hard to play better when we don't get pressure on the quarterback, but that is our job."
UNC's (0-5, 0-3 ACC) ignominious home losing streak – a growing school record – is now at nine games and counting. The Tar Heels travel to Greenville next week to take on East Carolina (0-5) in the long-anticipated Down East battle of winless teams.
Virginia received the game's opening kickoff, but turned the ball over on its third play from scrimmage, when receiver Art Thomas was hit by Lionell Green and fumbled. Freshman linebacker Larry Edwards, who was starting the first game of his career, recovered to give the Tar Heels the ball at the Cavs' 48-yard line.
"That was a big play for me, but we didn't capitalize on it," Edwards said. "We've just got to play harder as a defense."
After a minimal gain by Jacque Lewis, who was also making his first start of the year at tailback, and a quarterback sack, Darian Durant threw an apparent interception. But offsetting penalties allowed the Tar Heels to keep possession just long enough to punt the ball back to UVA following a short pass to Lewis that was well short of first-down yardage.
The Cavaliers then drove 62 yards down to the Carolina 33, but were forced to punt largely due to a third down tackle for loss by Edwards.
"Larry Edwards played fast – he was all over the place," Bunting said. "That's the kind of talent you need to be competitive in the ACC."
The Tar Heels' next drive was extended by a fake punt call on 4th-and-1, when Lewis took the snap and ran up the middle for the first down. During the drive, Carolina had two nice gains nullified by an illegal formation penalty and a block in the back.
At that time, Bunting called a timeout and ordered his whole team around him on the sidelines. The third-year head coach then dressed down his players for the sloppy play to the delight of most of the 51,000 fans in attendance.
"I've seen some great basketball coaches call some timeouts at the right times," Bunting said. "[Dean Smith] was my favorite of all-time, and he always called them at the right time. I often wondered if there might be a time to do that in a football game and I felt that was the time. I did not like our body language out there and the fact that we were being called for silly penalties."
A personal foul on Virginia bailed the Tar Heels out of a fourth down and long situation to again breathe life into their possession. The drive would stall, but not before Dan Orner would nail a 50-yard field goal to give UNC a 3-0 lead with 26 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
The Tar Heels held the ball for 8:06, the most time they had used on a drive this year. Orner's field goal was his fifth career of over 50 yards – a school record. And for the first time this season, the much-maligned Carolina defense did not allow an opponent to score in the first quarter.
However Virginia would strike back quickly and take a 7-3 lead on a 10-play, 75-yard drive, capped off by a six-yard touchdown run by Lundy. The key play took place four plays earlier, when UVA wide receiver Ottawa Anderson got behind Green for a 36-yard reception down to the UNC 15-yard line.
"Wali is a grinder," UVA head coach Al Groh said. "He's a back that you can ride for the whole fourth quarter if that is the way the game goes."
But that wouldn't be necessary.
Thirteen seconds later, UVA linebacker Darryl Blackstock recovered a fumbled pitch from Durant to Lewis. Virginia was knocking at the door again with a 1st and 10 at the UNC 19-yard line. Three plays later, Connor Hughes extended the Cavaliers lead to 10-3 on a 29-yard field goal with 9:19 remaining in the first half.
After a three-and-out on Carolina's next possession, Virginia held the ball for 4:48 and went up 17-3 on an 18-yard touchdown hookup from Schaub to Fontel Miles.
But just like last Saturday at N.C. State, UNC's offense scored just before the half to trim the score to 17-6. A 23-yard run by Durant gave the Tar Heels a first down at the Cavs' 11, setting up a 27-yard field goal by Orner as the first half clock expired.
On the drive, Durant surpassed Ronald Curry as UNC's all-time career passing leader and became the first Tar Heel quarterback to pass for over 5,000 yards. He now has 5,096 career passing yards, less than midway through his junior season.
Durant finished with 207 yards on 27-of-40 passing. The Tar Heels only touchdown came on a 14-yard run by Durant with 6:58 let to play in the game.
As a team, Carolina could only muster 58 yards on the ground.
"I gave it my all, that's all I can do," Durant said. "You can't win games like that. We didn't play well at all. We just didn't execute when we had the opportunity."
Despite visible improvement early by the Tar Heels' defensive front, the Cavs still managed 242 yards of total offense in the first half to UNC's 163.
And just like last week, Carolina gave up a quick touchdown early in the second half to put a dagger in its comeback hopes. Lundy scored his second rushing touchdown of the game--this time from one-yard out--to put Virginia up 24-6, just over four minutes into the third quarter.
UNC would never threaten again. Schaub's second touchdown pass of the day, a 33-yarder to Pearman, made it 31-6 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
"I really thought at halftime we would come out and play better than we did in the first half, and we played worse," Bunting said. "I'll take my responsibility for that. I'm sure the rest of the coaching staff will take their responsibility. What we've got to do is get those players that are capable of playing good, to play good all the time and be more consistent."
By the start of the final period, throngs of Carolina fans were already making there way to the exit portals.
"When it's a closely contested game at the half on the road, you need to come out in the third quarter and try and establish yourself," Groh said. "Otherwise it just becomes a seesaw game, back and forth, and who knows what happens with those things. The advantage in that case is often with the home team. That was a big challenge for us."