After N.C. State workhorse Jamal Eugene scored to put the Wolfpack up 31-27, the Tar Heels had the ball, three time outs, and 1:41 seconds to pull off an improbable victory from their own 37-yard line. Then it came down to one play, from the seven-yard line, fourth and goal.
T.J. Yates lofted the ball to Hakeem Nicks, the game on the line.
Pass incomplete. Game over.
It was a remarkable comeback attempt, and T.J. Yates described what was going through his mind on that final drive:
"(Try to) keep my composure, know that my receivers are going to make good routes, the line is going to block, just stay comfortable in the pocket and just deliver the ball and make good throws. They did a good job of playing defense there at the end …you definitely have to convert on those last couple of plays."
"We drive all the way down the field, there is a big fourth down catch by Hakeem (Nicks), Brandon Tate makes a good catch to get us close to the end zone – we just didn't convert at the end of the drive – but you got to convert those."
Tar Heels Dig an Early Hole…Again
The fact that North Carolina was actually in a position to win at the end of the game was perhaps the most remarkable facet of the game, given their poor play in the first half.
"The long and short of it is that we played very, very poorly in the first half, we almost didn't give ourselves a chance to even win the ball game, we didn't play well offensively, defensively, or special teams," head coach Butch Davis said.
North Carolina fell behind early going down 17-0 with 12:13 left in the first half – and it looked as if it would get worse. With the Wolfpack driving and looking to go up 24-0, an interception and 92-yard touchdown return by Charles Brown managed to momentarily stop the bleeding.
The early deficit was fueled in part by an interception thrown by T.J. Yates – the second time this year his first pass of the game went to a player wearing the wrong color uniform. That interception led to an N.C. State field goal. The defense was unusually generous in the first half, yielding an 88-yard, 10-play drive.
A questionable decision to attempt a 52-yard Connor Barth field goal into a stiff breeze yielded the Pack field position on the 35-yard line and after another double-digit drive later, yielded the second N.C. State touchdown.
"They came out strong, they were hyped, they were ready to go," Yates said. I thought we had good intensity coming out to the game, but they came out there with more. We sat down at the locker room at halftime and we had to refocus. We wanted to go back out there and make a statement because they kicked our butts in the first half."
The Wolfpack had particular success running the stretch play and getting around the perimeter of the North Carolina defense.
"In the first half," Davis said. "They were getting the ball on the perimeter they were going a good job of getting the (run) support people knocked down, cut, off their feet. We made some adjustments at halftime with the positioning of some people that helped us, and we might should have tried to do that a few possessions earlier, but they did a good job of getting the ball on the perimeter."
Big Plays Fuel Heels
While Charles Brown's interception return helped stem the Wolfpack tide in the first half, Bobby Rome's touchdown pass to a wide-open Brandon Tate helped quiet the N.C. State crowd early in the second half.
Both plays breathed life back into North Carolina at a time when the game threatened to get out of hand. Though the Tar Heels where being dominated on both sides of the ball for much of the game, those big plays kept the Tar Heels in the game.
Then with 9:46 seconds left to play, Kendric Burney gathered in a ball tipped by Durell Mapp and took it 76 yards for a touchdown to give the Heels the improbable lead in the game, 27-24.
No Answer for Eugene
The Tar Heels had no answer for N.C. State tail back Jamelle Eugene, who hurt the Heels running and receiving all day long. Eugene had 159 yards rushing and 33 receiving and scored three touchdowns rushing including the final NC State touchdown to regain the lead, 31-27 with 1:41 left in the game.
"He ran hard, he's a competitor," said senior Kentwan Balmer. "He found the creases and we were undisciplined, that's what good players do, they make things happen."
"He's an excellent running back," senior Hilee Taylor said. "He runs hard, it's going to take two guys to get him down. In the second half, I think we adjusted well, but he's a great running back."
Eugene did do most of his damage in the first half, running for 91 yards and catching the ball for another 26, but he hurt the Tar Heels all day long.
The first interception led to an N.C. State field goal, but the second turnover was more costly. Following the Burney interception return for a touchdown, the Tar Heel defense held the Wolfpack to a three-and-out and held the lead and the ball with 7:36 remaining.
"The sack-fumble, where they intercepted – it was a good play by them – they put pressure on the quarterback the ball popped up, the defensive lineman in the right place made a nice play," Davis said. "You hated the fact that two plays before that you probably are going make a first down that going to get across the fifty-yard line and have the possession of the ball with maybe less than five minutes and have the chance to burn up (some clock), move the ball, maybe score something that …dramatically changed the way the last two minutes or three minutes of that game is going to be played."
Late in the third quarter, Hakeem Nicks came down with the ball in the end zone, but lost possession as he hit the Carter-Finley turf and was ruled an incompletion. Though the play was reviewed, the touchdown no-call stood. Did Nicks have possession in the end zone? The ACC crew said no, resulting in a Connor Barth field goal to make the score 24-20 as the final quarter began.
Some Key Stats
The Tar Heels had only 12 net yards rushing on twenty attempts….NC State ran 22 more offensive plays than did UNC….North Carolina converted only 2 of 14 third-down attempts.