But in the end, Carolina simply didn't have enough, and the Florida State Seminoles pulled away for a 40-14 victory before a sellout Homecoming crowd of 81,910 at Doak Campbell Stadium.
"It's just another loss in the loss column which is very disappointing," said UNC coach John Bunting. "We had some opportunities and some players did step up. We'll see a lot of good things on tape I'm sure. (But) this is very, very difficult for us right now."
Trailing 20-0 midway through the third quarter, UNC quarterback C.J. Stephens led the Heels (2-9, 0-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) on an impressive 86-yard scoring drive. Stephens did most of the damage either with his legs - tough runs - or arm, as he completed passes to tight ends Zach Hilton for 25 yards over the middle and Bobby Blizzard for 14 yards, also over the middle, but that one for a touchdown to cut the margin to 20-7 with 3:53 left in the third quarter.
"We took two shots there," Blizzard said about the possession. "We tried to get me the ball to me twice. The first one he (Stephens) led me too much, but on the one I scored was the same play, right up the gut, and he hit me with it."
But the biggest play of the drive was made by wide receiver Sam Aiken. Jacque Lewis rambled 38 yards up the middle but fumbled while being dragged to the turf, but Aiken recovered the ball at FSU's 14. Two plays later the Heels scored.
"We've had a bad habit of putting together some good drives and not quite being able to finish or making mistakes," said Stephens, who completed 16 of 40 passes for 175 yards and a score. "And on that drive we really maintained throughout and didn't make any mistakes (overcame the fumble). So it was big and we needed a score at that time. It would have been nice put more together like that, but we're still learning."
But Bobby Bowden's team responded, as the 'Noles (8-3, 7-0) marched 65 yards to take a 26-7 lead with 2:50 left in the third quarter on Anquan Boldin's third TD reception (single-game career high) of the day, this time a short 4-yard fade from Adrian McPherson.
"That was tough because we were really in the game at that time," said cornerback Kevin Knight, who blocked an FSU field goal attempt in the first half. "But they came right back and scored, and it was a struggle after that."
Enabling FSU's score was a costly offsides by UNC on a third-and-two from the 22. Two plays later the 'Noles hit pay dirt.
FSU then held Carolina three-and-out, and while lining up to punt from its own 18, UNC was flagged for illegal motion as well as an illegal snap. The ball was snapped off the legs of protection man Jacque Lewis and bounced forward. The 'Noles recovered at UNC 21 and cashed in five plays later when McPherson found Talman Gardner cutting toward the end zone for a 20-yard score, and the Seminoles were in control, 33-7, with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Seminoles tacked on another TD for the final margin. But at least UNC was in the game late in the third quarter. And for Bunting, that's progress.
"I felt all through the first half that our defense did an incredible job in some very difficult situations," Bunting said. To the players' credit, they battled. They came down here to play and I'm proud of them for that reason."
Carolina was credited with nine pass deflections on the day. The Heels also blocked an FSU field goal attempt, had a pair of sacks, limited the 'Noles to 5-13 on third downs, held the Seminoles without a touchdown three times in the red zone, and showed improvement with lateral movement and tackling on defense.
"I am proud of this defense today," Knight said. "Even though the score doesn't show it, those guys fought their butts off all four quarters, 60 minutes, no matter what the score was. Everybody was fighting, flying to the ball, tackling better."
Of UNC's missed opportunities were five drops of Stephens passes, a penalty nullifying a converted third down, and two drops (Malcolm Stewart and Knight) that would have been interceptions, with Stewart's possibly going for six, and the other keeping FSU out of the end zone on that possession.
After a scoreless opening quarter, the Seminoles finally got on the scoreboard with 10:26 left before halftime on a 47-yard field goal by Xavier Beitia. FSU appeared to be heading toward the end zone but excellent pass coverage, a penalty and a sack by blitzing cornerback Derrick Johnson forced FSU into the long kick attempt.
"I think we had a lot more success (blitzing) today," Bunting said. "I'm proud of the way they played today and the way they executed the (defensive) game plan."
The Seminoles quickly scored on their next possession, as Boldin caught a short toss by McPherson and ran 43 yards into the end zone to give FSU a 10-0 lead with 7:06 left in the half.
FSU closed the first half on an eight-play, 85-yard scoring drive capped by a 19-yard scoring pass from McPherson to Boldin, who leaped the grab the ball while crossing the goal line. The point after made it 17-0 with 46 seconds left before intermission.
The Tar Heels had a shot to get on the scoreboard late in the half after moving to FSU's 36, keyed by a 22-yard reception for tight end Blizzard. But Dan Orner's 54-yard field goal attempt hit the right upright, and Carolina trailed 17-0 at halftime.
Beitia tacked on another three points with a 31-yard field goal to give FSU a 20-0 advantage with 7:37 left in the third quarter.
"We will learn from this experience," Bunting said. "I brought a lot of guys down here. I wanted them to be down here to see what it's like to play Florida State, who is the class of our conference, so when we come back here in two years a lot of those guys have the understanding of what the environment is down here."
At a point in the season where progress is measured with baby steps, UNC crawled a bit. And it's clear that the program is looking directly into the future.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.