Despite a game that contained a multitude of compelling storylines, including a career-day for senior T.J. Yates, a couple of player ejections, and three controversial calls on the goal line, it was the kicking game that ultimately decided the Tar Heels' fate in this contest.
The kicking game got the Tar Heels in the game and kept them ahead for much of the contest. Going into the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels held a 19-17 lead largely on the strength of four Casey Barth’s field goals. However, it wasn’t field goals UNC needed, it was touchdowns.
“The …disappointing thing is the inability when you get in the red zone to punch it in the end zone, to stall and have to settle for field goals,” head coach Butch Davis said. “As much as it is good to make them for Casey (Barth), and he made a great one today from 49-yards, the ones that you get inside the 20 you need to knock them in and score touchdowns.”
It was something the Tar Heels were doing well the first half of the season. Prior to the Miami game, the Tar Heels scored a touchdown in 16 of 24 red zone trips (9 rush, 7 pass) and connected on a field goal six other times. Today the Tar Heels entered the red zone four times and came away with just one touchdown.
“It is upsetting considering how well we were doing in the red zone the first six games of the year,” offensive lineman and fifth-year senior Mike Ingersoll said. “I don’t know what it is, I think sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way.”
Casey Barth’s 49-yard field goal near the end of the first half to give the Tar Heels a 13-10 lead was the longest of his career. After today’s game, Barth has had three games this season with at least three field goals. Barth kicked his fourth field goal to give the Tar Heels a 19-10 lead with 4:38 to go in the third quarter.
“We had them,” Ingersoll said. “When you’re kicking field goals when you should be scoring touchdowns, you know it is going to catch up with you.”
The kicking game contained another surprise – reserve quarterback Bryn Renner came in to kick his first collegiate punt, a pooch punt that pinned the Wolfpack inside the 20 –yard line. Renner’s dad, Bill Renner, is actually something of a specialist in training punters and kickers, himself a former collegiate and professional punter. A couple of Renner's former pupils at West Springfield High School went on to full scholarships as kickers, including N.C. State’s Josh Czjakowski, who booted two field goals on the day.
The piece of the kicking game that proved to be decisive, however, was the 87-yard punt return by T.J. Graham at the beginning of the fourth quarter that put the Wolfpack on top – a lead they never relinquished en route to their fourth consecutive victory over their light blue rivals.
“A punt return for a touchdown, most generally, it’s a back-breaker,” Davis said. “It is something extraordinarily difficult to overcome.”
In a twist of bitter irony, the return came on one of C.J. Feagles’ better punts, a 43-yarder that had decent hang time. Graham simply grabbed the ball, got to the outside and danced down the sideline – the third longest in N.C. State history, and the third longest ever given up by North Carolina.
Much will be made of a couple of fourth-and-two calls that required extensive review to decide, and neither one of those calls would likely have been reversed had they gone the other – Tar Heel – way, but when you dominate in total offense, 411 yards to 275, and lose 29-25, the problem is obvious: Too many field goals, not enough touchdowns.