Heels Still Trying to Finish Close Games

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - North Carolina hasn't proven it can consistently win close games under Larry Fedora just yet.

The Tar Heels (5-3, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) are coming off a 33-30 loss at Duke in which they surrendered the go-ahead touchdown with 13 seconds left. They're 1-3 in games decided by five or fewer points heading into Saturday's game against rival North Carolina State, which has won two straight with go-ahead scores in the final minute.

While all four close games have come on the road, Fedora is still waiting for his team - whether it's the offense chasing a score or the defense needing a stop - to respond in those game-deciding moments.

"I don't think it's a lack of confidence," Fedora said. "But if you continue to do that, eventually you're going to question yourself, there's no doubt about it. That's human nature. That's something we've got to work on as a coaching staff, to make sure that doesn't happen."

Last week, the Tar Heels went ahead 30-26 when Gio Bernard recovered a fumble after a catch by Erik Highsmith and ran it into the end zone with 3:12 left. But the defense couldn't stop the Blue Devils from going 87 yards for the winning touchdown that made them bowl-eligible for the first time in 18 years.

It was a similar scenario to the Tar Heels' first loss at Wake Forest, when they controlled the second half before giving up a 93-yard drive for the go-ahead TD with 2:09 left in the 28-27 loss.

The next week, it was the offense's turn to come up short. UNC fell behind 29-0 at Louisville before rallying in the second half and getting a first-and-goal with the chance to take the lead in the final minutes. But Highsmith couldn't haul in a catchable fourth-down pass to seal a 39-34 loss.

Quarterback Bryn Renner said the players weren't shaken by those late-game losses.

"I think we think every play could be a game-changing play to get us over the hump and win those ballgames like that," he said. "But in this conference, every game is going to be like that. ... We've just got to find a way as a team to make more plays and win those ballgames."

Those struggles could become magnified against the Wolfpack (5-2, 2-1), who have won five straight meetings with the Tar Heels in the long and heated rivalry. Three of the five wins have come by four or fewer points.

And if Saturday's game comes down to the final minutes, N.C. State has plenty of confidence after the past two games.

After giving up a last-minute touchdown in a 44-37 loss at Miami, the Wolfpack rallied to beat then-No. 3 Florida State 17-16 on a fourth-down touchdown pass with 16 seconds left. Last week, N.C. State marched 54 yards to set up Niklas Sade's 43-yard field goal with 32 seconds left in the 20-18 win - though the Wolfpack needed Maryland kicker Brad Craddock to hit the left upright on a 33-yard field goal with 2 seconds left to secure the victory.

Coach Tom O'Brien, who hasn't lost to the Tar Heels since arriving taking over in Raleigh before the 2007 season, said figuring out way to pull out those close games is "a big confidence builder."

"You have to be able to have success in those situations," O'Brien said. "I think then the whole team has confidence in the quarterback and certainly our kicker gained a lot of success. ... For him to be able to do that should be a big step for him, too."

Right now, the Tar Heels are trying to make that same leap.

"I'd say to put it together earlier," UNC offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper said. "The offense, we were fortunate to get back in the game this past weekend and we kind of got things rolling late. If we could focus on the game plan, not shoot ourselves in the foot and do what's necessary early on, then it won't matter. If we're able to finish drives not with field goals but with touchdowns, then we won't be talking about the last late minutes of the quarter."

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