It was a tale of two halves for the Tar Heels, who fought back from a 16-0 second quarter deficit on the arm of freshman sensation T.J. Yates. Held to only 17 yards passing through the first 23:41, the Marietta, Ga. native torched the UVa defense for 322 yards and three touchdowns the rest of the way.
“This is the type of team that we keep fighting back, no matter what,” Yates said. “We’ve come back from a lot of adversity. Last week against ECU, there was a lot of times that we could have quit in that ball game and just gave up, and the same thing this week. We fought back, no matter what the circumstances were.”
Down 22-14 with 3:30 remaining, Yates led the Tar Heels 85 yards down the field, connecting with tight end Richard Quinn on a two-yard touchdown pass, only to have his potential game-tying two-point conversion pass batted down at the line of scrimmage.
“I told the team this before the season started, but there’s going to be an awful of games that come down to a very, very small margin of whether or not you have a chance to win, or whether you’re going to lose a football game,” Davis said. “And more times than not, and I ‘ll say it for probably a long, long time, it’s not the number of great plays that you make, it’s the number of poor plays that you make.”
As good as Yates performed, he was unable to overcome UNC’s inability to run the ball or stop UVa’ ground game, which led to the Tar Heels losing the time of possession (39:14 – 20.46) and turnover (3-0) battles for the second consecutive week.
“We’ve got to flip the time of possession and part of that comes from the three turnovers,” Davis said. “If you don’t give the ball to them, some of that time of possession [is recovered], but two weeks in a row now, it’s been about double.”
The Tar Heels were never able to solve UVa’s rushing attack, led by Cedric Peerman’s 186 yards and one touchdown. The Cavs finished with 350 total yards as sophomore quarterback Jameel Sewell added 96 yards on 11-of-17 completions.
North Carolina posted 399 total yards, but only 60 of those yards came on the ground. The Tar Heel receivers once again showcased their talent, as Hakeem Nicks caught seven passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns and Brooks Foster added seven receptions for 139 yards.
Virginia entered the game with a sputtering offense, averaging only 212 yards per game, but the porous UNC defense made the Cavs look like an offensive juggernaut this afternoon. Sewell and Peerman mixed steady doses of runs and passes on UVa ‘s opening 12-play, 68-yard touchdown drive that set the tone for the contest.
The Tar Heel offense, on the other hand, looked bewildered from the beginning against their first ACC opponent, netting a loss of six yards on their first two possessions while suffering two sacks, a pass breakup and a fumbled snap.
The Cavs took advantage of solid field position early, needing only 13 yards of offense for Chris Gould to connect on a career-long 51-yard field goal. The senior would convert two more attempts (28, 37) to extend the Virginia lead to 16-0 with 6:19 remaining in the half.
Defensive end Chris Long and the Cavalier defense finally made quarterback T.J. Yates look like the inexperienced freshman that he is during the first half, limiting the UNC offense to 53 yards on 21 plays through the first 28:05.
But Yates regained his composure during the final two minutes, directing the Tar Heels on an 11-play, 72-yard scoring drive, including a four-yard touchdown pass to Nicks. The completion was Yates’ seventh touchdown toss of the young season, making him the first UNC quarterback to ever accomplish that feat through three games.
That late charge inspired the Tar Heels heading into halftime, and set the stage for their furious rally in the second half.
“Once the first half is over, it’s over,” defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer said. “It didn’t cross anybody’s mind in that locker room. We came out in the second half ready to play no matter what the deficit was. We knew the offense was going to get it together and we knew the defense was going to get it together. We just had to execute.”
North Carolina displayed their youth and inexperience on numerous plays throughout the game, possibly none bigger than on an UVa 3rd-and-long early in the third quarter. A strong UNC pass rush forced a Sewell fumble that the Tar Heels failed recover, followed by a unsportsmanlike penalty on freshman nickel back Charles Brown that led to a Virginia first down and an eventual Gould 48-yard field goal to extend the Cavs’ lead to 19-7.
“We really should have won this one,” Nicks said. “I feel like we beat ourselves. Don’t get me wrong – Virginia came out and played a great game with great effort, [but] we didn’t perform well in certain areas of the game.”
Yates would continue where he left off just before halftime, connecting with Nicks on a 53-yard touchdown strike on the very next series to close the gap to 19-14.
Despite a solid effort by the Tar Heels to put more points on the scoreboard, Long would kill the momentum shift by intercepting Yates at the line of scrimmage in UVa territory and returning it 25 yards to the UNC 30-yard line. The Cavs would extend their lead to 22-14 on Gould’s school-tying fifth field goal – this one good from 32 yards.
North Carolina’s next drive would stall after moving 67 yards when freshman H-back Zack Pianalto fumbled a Yates pass on the UVa 31-yard line, squashing the Tar Heels’ second-to-last scoring opportunity.