The Tar Heels got the chance for what had at one point seemed an inconceivable victory thanks in part to two game-changing special teams plays in the fourth quarter.
Having closed a 29-point deficit to 39-21 early in the fourth quarter, Romar Morris blocked a Louisville punt.
“We thought we could block a punt, we had it schemed up,” Fedora said. “We thought we would have a chance, and Romar got in there and got it.”
Morris added, “We just put it in this week in practice. Coach Fedora put me on (the punt block team) this week, because I wasn’t on it previously, but he put me on it this week because he believed that I can block it. Everyone did their assignment, went where they were supposed to go, and I just blocked the punt.”
On the next play, Renner hit Eric Ebron for a touchdown.
But it took a second special teams play to put UNC in position for a chance at the win. Norkeithus Otis delivered a crushing blow on Louisville’s kick returner, Adrian Bushell, forcing a fumble that was recovered by UNC’s Alex Dixon.
Fedora didn’t remember the players involved, but he couldn’t forget the hit.
“I don’t know who it was, I couldn’t tell, but I know someone knocked the tar out of the guy,” Fedora said, “and the guy put the ball on the ground. I hope he’s alright. So that gave us an opportunity and we didn’t capitalize at the end.”
That brings us back to the final Tar Heel possession.
Highsmith’s attempt at a heroic catch might not have been needed without a false start earlier in the possession. At the three-yard line, the Tar Heels had a good play dialed up for the Louisville defense. After the ball was snapped it appeared that minus the referee’s whistle, Renner would have a great chance at scoring on a quarterback draw right up the middle.
“It was a good call against what they had, we thought (Renner) was going to walk in,” Fedora said. “That’s the little things that you do in practice, every day, that when that happens in practice and you don’t address it then, it comes back and bites you in a game -- in a critical time. When really no one thinks it is that big of deal in practice if a guy flinches or whatever, then you get into that situation in a game and it hurts you.
“That (penalty) there at the end was tough.“
The next play, a four-yard run by Morris, brought the ball to the four and set up the final theatrics in an anxious Cardinals Stadium.
“The guy had inside leverage on me,” Highsmith said. “The play is for me to get inside him, but he was already pre-snap lined up inside, he kind of grabbed my right arm, but the time I turned around the ball was already in the air, so I had to go up and make a play; I had possession he just made a better play on it.
“I had it, I caught it: coming down he kind of got it out – he made a good play on it. Bryn told me he was going to throw it to me, so I was ready for it.”
“He face-masked me also,” Highsmith noted, referring to Louisville cornerback Andre Johnson. Photo evidence indeed shows Johnson clearly grabbing and removing Highsmith’s helmet during the play.
Johnson had a slightly different take on the play: “They used that play earlier. I went up and checked him at the line. I lined up on the outside, and then when the ball was snapped I snuck back on the inside. That gave me the leverage to get up under him. He can jump, so I waited for him to come down and I knocked the ball out of his hands.”
What to take away from the impressive, though failed, comeback attempt?
“We learned a great lesson today,” Fedora said. “What we did learn today about the Tar Heels is there is a lot of fight in them. They’ve got something inside of them. That alone will give us a chance.”
Four yards short, but perhaps a lot gained.