And although bowl eligibility remains well within their reach, the Tar Heels’ 27-24 loss to No. 18 Virginia Tech probably ended any hopes of an ACC conference title – the odds of which seemed to improve with every conversation leading up to Saturday’s game.
“No loss is any fun and this one wasn't either,” John Bunting said. “It was a difficult loss because I really believed that we’d win, just as I think everybody else on our sideline believed that. Once again, it just shows you close we are to getting to where we want to be.”
It was not the way arguably the best quarterback in UNC history wanted his final game in Kenan Stadium to end. Darian Durant, the only Tar Heel to ever throw for over 7,000 yards and account for 8,000 yards of total offense, stood with his parents and was saluted with the rest of the Carolina seniors prior to the game. But in the end, it was a day he would like to forget.
Having led the Tar Heels back from a 13-point deficit in the second half, within 26 yards of either a game-winning or game-tying score with 1:16 left, Durant was sacked by Virginia Tech’s Jim Davis for an 11-yard loss.
Trailing by three points and now facing a 4th and 20, and despite the length needed to carry the goalposts and the youth of its kicker, Bunting felt he had no other choice but go for the tie.
The hero of last week’s upset win over fourth-ranked Miami – freshman Connor Barth – was called on to knock down 54-yard field goal.
“I’ve seen [Barth] hit from 57 yards,” Bunting said. “When the ball took off, I thought it was in there.”
But kicking into a swirling wind, Barth’s kick came up at least five yards short of the newly replaced goalpost in the closed end of the stadium, as a stunned Carolina fans stood still paralyzed by the previous drive-halting play.
“I just hit it as hard as I could,” Barth said. “I guess the wind up top was a little harder than it was down on the ground.”
The Hokies (7-2, 4-5) had pulled ahead in the third quarter behind 236 rushing yards by diminutive tailback Mike Imoh. But the Tar Heels quickly brought themselves back in the game when D.J. Walker scooped up the ball at the Tech 1 and scored with 10:30 left in the game, after Tom O’Leary blocked a punt attempt by Vinnie Burns.
Virginia Tech had seized momentum by holding the ball for 10:29 of the third quarter. But with the playing of AC-DC’s “Hell’s Bells” and a montage of plays that made UNC history, the Tar Heels took over the game in the final period.
“We changed up a couple of things,” Va. Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “But in the end, it was just make sure we tackle and keep the ball in front of us in pass coverage. They made nice runs, but we missed tackles.”
Carolina relied on nearly flawless execution in its inspirational wins over Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Miami. But against the Hokies, the Tar Heels were flagged seven times for 56 yards worth of penalties, including two personal fouls, to go with an interception thrown by Durant that led to a Tech go ahead field goal just before halftime.
“There were a lot of back-breaking plays,” said senior Jason Brown. “You just can’t write this game off on one single play.”
Chad Scott, starting just the second game of his career at tailback, again came up big with 124 yards rushing with a 48-yard first quarter touchdown run. But Ronnie McGill and Jacque Lewis didn’t play, and Madison Hedgecock carried the ball just once for one-yard. Still, the Tar Heels kept the game close.
“I always knew that if I had the opportunity, I could show everybody what I can do,” Scott said. “Fortunately, I had opportunities in the past two weeks. I always knew I had it in me.”
This one will hurt for a while, but when Carolina and its fans wake up on Sunday, they may realize just how far this team has come and what opportunities still remain. It is now clear that the defense has improved, which makes the Tar Heels capable of beating anyone.
“I think we’re a much smarter football team now,” Gerald Sensabaugh said, who had two tackles for loss and two sacks. “Before, in our first few games, we made mistakes that don’t happen now. I think everybody understands their role now.”
Carolina travels to Wake Forest next Saturday and then end the regular season at Duke. They will need to win out in order to qualify for a one-game season extension – a potential accomplishment almost no one gave them a chance to attain going into the season.