In a performance resembling their 0-3 start instead of the five-game winning streak that followed, the Tar Heels fell for the first time in 54 days, losing to Georgia Tech 28-21 before an excited crowd of 41,893 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"It's definitely disappointing, especially considering how we've played lately," said wide receiver Bosley Allen (9 receptions, 114 yards). "This was a big game and we made too many mistakes."
The loss can be summed up numerous ways, but omitting poor run defense, a non-existent ground attack, absent kick coverage, mind-boggling penalties and a secondary seemingly uninterested in the ball or short coverage would be foolish.
Carolina entered its final road game of the year in position to take a gigantic step toward at least a share of its first ACC championship since 1980. Perhaps that reality was too much for this young program to handle?
"I think a lot of people were overexcited for the game," All-American defensive end Julius Peppers said. "I think it was a combination having players not playing in big games before and playing not to lose. We didn't want to lose more than we wanted to win."
Despite being thoroughly outplayed in the first half, Carolina trailed just 13-7 at the intermission. Tech was winning the battle in the trenches but just couldn't punch the ball in the end zone enough to produce a bigger lead.
The Heels, who had been in this situation before and prevailed, got a new lease on life when linebacker David Thornton picked off a George Godsey pass and returned it to Tech's 41 just three minutes into the second half. Six plays later Darian Durant hit Sam Aiken for a 15-yard touchdown and the Heels took a 14-13 lead.
But the defense, which played on its heels – no pun intended – all night, simply could not stop a Tech ground game that hasn't been the team's strong suit this fall.
This is when George O'Leary's Jackets went on their most impressive drive of the year, going 84 yards on 18 plays and using up a staggering 8:47 off the clock when Godsey's keeper made it 20-14 with 1:12 left in the third quarter.
However, Tech did get a helping hand.
On third and two at UNC's seven - just mere yards from where the Ramblin' Wreck was stopped in the first quarter - the Heels were whistled for one of four offsides penalties, giving the Jackets a first and goal at the three and the score followed two plays later.
"We did not play very well on the defensive end," said UNC head coach John Bunting. "They did an excellent job running the football. All in all, I think we just didn't play very well on third down. We had several third down opportunities, a couple of third and long, we got to get off the field and we didn't get it done."
On UNC's next two possessions Durant was able to move the chains some but ultimately a wretched ground attack (13 yards on 17 attempts) made it easy for Tech to defend the Heels' short and long passing game. In fact, Carolina's longest conventional run from the line of scrimmage was three yards.
"That's tough," said a somber Durant. "In order to win games like this you have to establish the run. You have to give credit to Georgia Tech. They were prepared and they made all the right moves to stop the running game and that's what they did."
"They were bringing some safeties who were making a lot of tackles and bringing some corners. I'm not even sure," senior center Adam Metts said. "We need to sit down and watch the film. This was all us, the players. We need to sit down and figure our what went wrong so we can fix it."
A 51-yard explosion by Joe Burns (34 carries for 198 yards) finished off the scoring for Tech, providing them a comfortable cushion.
UNC made it interesting after Durant (22-37, 286 yards) threw his third TD pass of the night, finding Aiken for a 21-yard score to cut the margin to 28-21.
But Carolina would get no closer.
The first half didn't have as much scoring, but may have been a precursor to what ultimately happened.
After the Yellow Jackets went three and out on their first possession they moved the ball from their own 16 to UNC's one, on their second, before being stopped on downs. However, it showed the Jackets could move the ball against the well respected Tar Heels' defense.
After the Heels took over at their own one they quickly punted back to the Jackets, who began that series at Carolina's 31. Four plays later Godsey (18-27, 187 yards) and Jonathan Smith hooked up for a 17-yard score to give Tech a 7-0 with 13:57 left in the first half.
UNC came right back and scooted 65 yards on seven plays to tie it up when Durant, who played the entire game with Ronald Curry out of action with a hamstring injury, found Kory Bailey wide open for a 30-yard score.
But the previously mentioned problem areas created Carolina's downfall.
To go along with the inept running game, the Heels surr