UNC’s 1-5 start had plenty of talking points of the negative variety. There were three plays that went for 169 yards and 21 points in the season opener at South Carolina. There were 37 missed assignments against East Carolina. There were 11 penalties for 79 yards against Virginia Tech. And then there were five red zone trips with only one touchdown and a 3rd-and-1 delay of game call against Miami.
Those miscues were gradually reduced as UNC entered the weaker half of its schedule and excelled in all three phases.
Until Saturday, that is.
North Carolina committed nine penalties for 85 yards, including a block in the back on the kickoff of its final possession of the game. Thomas Moore missed a 42-yard field wide right on UNC’s opening drive. T.J. Logan dropped a would-be touchdown pass on Marquise Williams’s best pass of the afternoon after Duke had grabbed a 24-15 lead in the third quarter.
“It’s really frustrating,” senior tackle James Hurst said. “We think we beat ourselves. They obviously played a great game - they did a lot of good stuff – but we had some real timely penalties and that really hurt us.”
Two penalties in particular stood out due to poor decisions. UNC linebacker Travis Hughes pushed Jamison Crowder into the goal post after a 17-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
The second penalty occurred at a critical juncture in the game as UNC was in the red zone trailing by two with under eight minutes to play. Khris Francis ran for three yards on 2nd-and-5 to reach Duke’s nine-yard line. Center Russell Bodine, however, was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct for pushing linebacker David Helton to the ground after the play.
UNC’s 3rd-and-2 inside the 10 became a 3rd-and-17, which resulted in a field goal instead of seven points.
“The first one, the guy lost his head,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters during his postgame press conference. “He got beat in coverage and then made it worse. The second one, I don’t know. I didn’t see the thing. I just saw it on the screen. I don’t know what happened there. There was no whistle on the play. I’m not sure the offensive lineman knew when the play was over with but it doesn’t matter.”
While there may have been confusion regarding the whistle, Bodine likely piqued the referees’ attention on the previous play due to his extracurricular activity with defensive tackle A.J. Wolf.
Even so, a missed opportunity on Duke’s ensuing drive prevented the Tar Heels from regaining possession with less than six minutes to play. On 1st-and-10 from his own 38, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone was flushed from the pocket by Kareem Martin and threw behind Isaac Blakeney into Tre Boston’s body.
The senior safety was unable to hold onto the ball – UNC’s third interception that failed to materialize – and Duke took the lead for good seven plays later on a 27-yard field goal from Ross Martin.
“It hit me and I kicked it out of my own hands,” Boston said. “I never second guess myself. It was just one of those things where I couldn’t come down with it.”
Once again, UNC played well enough to win a close game. But, once again, the Tar Heels were unable to overcome a handful of miscues that prevented the victory.