When North Carolina Romar Morris rushed over the left side for a four-yard touchdown to tie the score at 21 with 4:45 to play in the third quarter, the stat sheet shifted in UNC's favor. The Tar Heels had run 51 plays for 291 yards, a slower pace than head coach Larry Fedora prefers, but understandable with All-ACC running back Gio Bernard sidelined with an apparent knee injury.
The offense managed 31 plays and 137 yards over the final 19:45, ending its final six drives with two field goals, two punts, an interception and a Hail Mary that was batted down just short of the end zone as time expired.
Penalties, busted plays and mental mistakes plagued the Tar Heels for most of the game, but particularly down the stretch. Cornerback Tim Scott's interception return to Wake Forest's eight-yard line set UNC up in the red zone, but that drive was dealt a damaging blow on first down on Erik Highsmith's holding call on a screen pass. Three plays later, Casey Barth drilled a 25-yard field goal to give UNC a 24-21 lead.
On their next possession, the Tar Heels reached the red zone again and faced a 2nd-and-5 at Wake Forest's 13-yard-line. Two incomplete passes forced another Barth field goal, this time from 30 yards out.
"We had a couple of drives in the red zone late in the game," quarterback Bryn Renner said. "We've got to put the game away. The defense put the game in our hands and we didn't make enough plays to win."
His head coach agreed with that assessment.
"That's the difference in the game really," Fedora said. "It's about as disappointing as it gets, because you score a touchdown and we're all sitting here and I've got a smile on my face, but that's the way the game is played. That's why you've got to go do it. Just because you get the ball down there doesn't mean it's going to go in. You've got to make it go in. When you get in the score-zone there's got to be something that comes on in your mind and you can't be turned down. You got to get the ball in the end zone."
North Carolina endured a handful of busted plays, several of which played a role in Renner's negative-19 net rushing yards as backup running backs A.J. Blue (19 rushes, 106 yards, TD) and Morris (14 rushes, 70 yards, TD) appeared to be out of position on at least three plays.
UNC's starting unit committed just one penalty in last week's season opener, but that group totaled eight penalties for 87 yards on Saturday.
There wasn't one particular area susceptible to the mistakes, according to left guard Jonathan Cooper, who added the errors were sporadic and spread out across the position groups.
He also complimented Wake Forest's efforts in forcing UNC's mental lapses.
"It's a combination of both," Cooper said. "I don't want to take any credit away from Wake Forest. They came out and they played hard and they played well. But we also did have a gaggle of mistakes that we do need to fix."
North Carolina now must return to Chapel Hill with a renewed emphasis on minimizing mistakes and capitalizing on red zone opportunities.
"It's all about preparation," Fedora said. "That's what it's all about. It's always about preparation. It's how you prepare on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday [that] determine how you play on Saturday. Obviously we didn't prepare well enough on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and you learn a lesson from it. Hopefully we'll be a better football team because of it."
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