"There were a lot of plays made out there on both sides. We were probably one play short," head coach John Bunting said following the game.
That is a heavy -- but in this case accurate -- burden for one play to bear: North Carolina now (4-5, 3-3) faces long odds to return to a bowl game, while Maryland (5-4, 3-3) kept its postseason hopes alive. Make that one play, and a winning season and a bowl game is in your grasp. Don't make that one play, and you're home for the holidays.
The Tar Heels didn't make that play. Maryland did.
Maryland, with two weeks to prepare, entered this game with a fixed purpose in mind: stop the Tar Heels from running the ball effectively. By shutting down the running game, they could force UNC quarterback Matt Baker to try and beat them with his arm. Baker delivered the best game thus far of his one-season career, completing 25 of 40 passes for 335 yards and no interceptions, but Maryland's gamble paid off.
"Our passing game was (in synch), but we couldn't run the ball to save our lives for the most part," Baker said. "That's a tribute to Maryland stacking a lot of guys in the box. We didn't do a great job running the ball." The stat sheet reflects Baker's statement – the Tar Heels netted only 89 yards rushing, 21 of those on a run by Baker himself.
Even with Baker's heroics, two of UNC's three touchdowns came courtesy of the defense. Ronnie McGill scored on a six-yard run in the second quarter, set up by an interception and 37-yard return by defensive tackle Kyndraus Guy. Safety Kareen Taylor added a touchdown in the fourth quarter on another interception and 25-yard return.
Of North Carolina's three field goals, only the one in the final moments to send the game into overtime came as the result of sustained, double-digit play drive. The other two were made possible by long pass completions to Jesse Holley and Mike Mason.
One play that will generate much debate this week was the decision to kick a field goal on third down with 13 seconds left to play. The Tar Heel could have tested the end zone one more time, but elected to tie the game with a Connor Barth field goal. While there are likely to be strong opinions about that decision, both points of view have validity.
Matt Baker summarized the risks following the game; "You risk the game by going for it on third and seven with no timeouts. You don't have enough time to run the kicking unit on if say, I trip and fall off the snap, if I drop the snap and I have to fall on it. A sack, a tackle at the one-yard line, there is not enough time to get the field goal unit out there. It was a good decision."
The Tar Heels netted only 89 yards rushing, 21 of those on a run by Baker himself.
On the other hand, the risk of a missed Connor Barth field goal – as happened in overtime - wasn't something that could be easily dismissed either. With the difference between a losing season and a winning season hanging in the balance, kicking the field goal on third-down seemed more conservative than the circumstances demanded.
But, as Bunting said after the game, "It shouldn't have come down to even overtime in my opinion, but it did." He was right.
In close games at Kenan Stadium against Virginia and Boston College, the Tar Heels were able to celebrate victories because, at least in part, the defense did not give up the big play. The Cavaliers' longest play from scrimmage was 13 yards. The Tar Heels gave up only one big play to the Eagles, a 38-yarder that may have foreshadowed what transpired Saturday.
After Kareen Taylor's interception and return for a touchdown, the Tar Heels were up 27-17 with nine minutes left to play. On the ensuing Maryland possession, facing a long third down, Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenback connected with receiver Jo Jo Walker for a 67-yard touchdown. UNC defensive end Kentwan Balmer nearly scuttled that play with a sack, but Hollenbach escaped to make the play.
The Tar Heels had to punt on their next possession, but forced Maryland to start on their own 20-yard line. Hollenback then connected with receiver Danny Melendez for an 80-yard touchdown strike – Maryland took the lead 30-27 (the extra point attempt failed). In essence, that one play was the ball game.
Of Maryland's 524 yards of total offense, the most surrendered by the Tar Heel defense this season, 147 of those yards came on two plays five minutes apart in the fourth quarter.
Those two plays were the difference-makers in this game, but were not the only area of defense exploited by the Maryland offense. Maryland's tailback Lance Ball amassed 161 yards of rushing against a Tar Heel defense that had become stout against the rush. Ball did most of his damage in the first half, contributing to a large time-of-possession edge in that half.
Excuses are easy to locate after a loss. In this case, UNC injuries probably did play a part. The Tar Heels were without defensive end starter Brian Rackley, and defensive end Hilee Taylor left the game with an ankle injury. Thin at defensive end, defensive tackle Chase Page had to move to the end spot at times during the game. The defensive line has been much improved this season, in part due to the depth they enjoyed. They were able to rotate players along the line, keeping them fresh during games. They did not have that luxury on Saturday, and it showed.
Two of UNC's touchdowns were generated by the defense.
While the UNC defense clearly comes in for its share of the burden for this loss, it bears repeating that two of UNC's touchdowns were generated by the defense.
Maryland did a very good job of containing Tar Heel return teams. North Carolina averaged less than four yards per punt return, and neither Brandon Tate nor Wallace Wright were able to break long kickoff returns. Without an efficient offense, the Tar Heels depend on their return teams to give them good field position.
Connor Barth connected on three field goals, including one of 45-yards. However, the missed field goal in overtime ended UNC's chances to win.
David Woolridge's development into a steady, reliable punter this season is one of the stories that has gone largely unnoticed. He had another good day, booming one punt 54 yards.
The Maryland players and their coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for this win. They made good use of their extra preparation time, came in with a solid game plan, and made the plays when they had to make them. This game was as much about what Maryland did right as what UNC did wrong. It is also easy to lose sight of the fact that despite Maryland's excellent game preparation and execution, the Tar Heels still forced overtime.
Next week UNC faces Duke, a game with less luster after the Maryland loss, but still one with multiple story lines. The last time the Tar Heels faced Duke in Kenan Stadium, the Blue Devils took home ‘The Victory Bell," closing out the Tar Heels, 30-22. A win over Duke on Saturday would mean UNC would have won two in a row over each in-state ACC opponent, Duke, Wake Forest, and N.C. State. A win would put UNC's ACC record at 4-3, and though the Heels would still need an improbable win in Blacksburg, it would keep the faint flicker of a winning season alive.
A winning season for the Tar Heels hasn't been mathematically eliminated, but to get there the Tar Heels will not only have to find a way to make that one play, they will need to make a lot of plays.