“You hate to lose any game, particularly a game like this,” head coach Butch Davis said. “… I’m extraordinarily proud of our team’s effort. These kids play, they lay it on the line every single game, and there’s not one single kid that walks back into that locker room that doesn’t leave everything they’ve got on the field.”
This loss marks North Carolina’s fourth this season by six points or less. While youth and inexperience are still concerns with this program, the Tar Heels have had plenty of chances to pull out victories in several of these tight ball games.
“We’ve got to minimize our mistakes and minimize our turnovers,” Yates said. “[We] need to come out and play fast. We sort of had to play catch-up after they got out to a three-touchdown lead.
North Carolina’s defense dominated after halftime, shutting down South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier’s offense and holding the Gamecocks to zero points, two first downs and just 62 total yards.
“The defense – [defensive coordinator] Chuck Pagano – they may have had, clearly without question, their finest performance of the season,” Davis said. “… You win those kinds of games with your defense that doesn’t allow them to ever score again. That’s the only way you are ever going to get a chance because you can match score for score.”
That performance allowed the Tar Heels offense to battle back from a 21-3 halftime deficit, as Yates completed 14-of-25 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown during the final two quarters. The Marietta, Ga. signal caller took the field with 0:41 remaining, and led North Carolina 38 yards down the field, setting up his game-ending desperation attempt from the USC 31-yard line.
The red-shirt freshman finished with 285 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions on 22-of-42 passing.
Spurrier was just happy to escape Kenan Stadium with another victory against the Tar Heels -- he is now 3-0 in Chapel Hill, 4-0 overall.
"It is what it is, and we won the game," Spurrier said. "We're happy, and I'm happy. I didn't want to lose up here, and I'm happy for the Dukies and for the South Carolina people -- we're all happy. I felt like I was coaching for both of them today."
The Tar Heels had numerous opportunities to win this highly-anticipated rivalry clash, but crucial mistakes at inopportune times – see Greg Little’s drop in the end zone on 4th-and-9 with 6:00 – ended any thoughts of North Carolina’s first upset of a top-10 team since beating No. 5 Miami 31-28 in 2004.
North Carolina’s second half comeback bid took a huge hit when Brandon Tate (head) and leading-receiver Hakeem Nicks (left ankle) were injured late in the first half. Nicks was the only one to return, catching a 20-yard pass on his first play back with 1:05 left in the third quarter.
Yates would then connect with Little for an 18-yard touchdown pass to pull the Tar Heels to within 21-9, followed by a costly botched extra point attempt with 14:53 remaining in the game.
But the UNC defense – led by Durell Mapp’s 14 tackles – never yielded, allowing the Gamecocks just 19 yards on 15 plays in the final period. The Tar Heel offense, on the other hand, entered the fourth quarter with only 197 total yards, but Shoop’s unit repaid their defensive counterparts by tacking on an additional 201 yards in the final 15:00, capped off by Yates’ three-yard scamper to cut the lead to 21-15.
Despite the strong finish, North Carolina never took advantage of its golden opportunities throughout the game. The Tar Heels drove inside South Carolina’s 32-yard line on four different occasions without any points to show for their efforts.
Down 14-3 midway through the second quarter, Tate slid behind the vaunted Gamecock secondary on a seam route. Yates’ deep ball hit him in the hands for a would-be 65-yard touchdown, but the all-everything receiver dropped the pass.
Defensive end E.J. Wilson juggled and lost a potential interception in USC territory shortly thereafter, followed by Yates’ hurried interception just shy of the red-zone on a 2nd-and-20 with 6:35 remaining before halftime. Victories of this magnitude require near flawless execution, and the Tar Heels were far from perfect on this cool October afternoon, committing eight penalties for 67 yards.
Contrary to Spurrier’s infamous “Fun-n-Gun” days at Florida, the Gamecocks used a stifling defense to win the field position battle in the first half on Saturday, setting up two first half scoring drives of 40 and 48 yards. Red-shirt freshman Chris Smelley threw touchdowns to three different receivers to put South Carolina ahead 21-3 at halftime, before finishing his first road start with 172 yards and three touchdowns and one interception on 17-of-26 passing.
After two promising rushing performances against Virginia Tech and Miami, the UNC ground game was held to a paltry 113 yards. Those stats would have been even worse if offensive coordinator John Shoop had not opened up his bag of tricks. Wide receivers Little and Joe Dailey both took snaps at quarterback, combining for five carries and 34 yards on the ground.
“Against a team like this, you’ve got to leave it all out there,” Yates said. “You’ve got to throw everything you’ve got at them. That’s a great football team we just played, and we had to give them everything we had.”
Even things went askew for the consistent Connor Barth, who snapped his consecutive field goal streak (19) with a wide left attempt from 49 yards in the first quarter.