“I’ll tell you exactly what I told the team when we got to the locker room – that Virginia made the plays they needed to make to win the game,” UNC head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his postgame press conference.
Virginia (4-3, 2-1 ACC) has dominated this rivalry in recent years by being the aggressor at the line of scrimmage, but No. 18 North Carolina (5-2, 1-2) assumed that role for most of Saturday’s contest. The Tar Heel defense hit early and often, holding the Cavaliers to 168 total yards and nine first downs during the first 57 minutes and 38 seconds of regulation.
But after North Carolina pounded Virginia with a 15-play, 71-yard scoring drive that soaked up 7 minutes and 29 seconds and ended with a Casey Barth 40-yard field goal to give the Tar Heels a 10-3 lead with 2:22 remaining, the defense switched to a prevent-style scheme that focused on dropping seven and eight defenders into coverage.
UVa quarterback Marc Verica (24-of-38 for 217 yards) capitalized, completing seven of his eight passes for 80 yards, and Cedric Peerman (44 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns) finished the drive off with a two-yard touchdown run that cut the deficit to 10-9. UNC safety Deunta Williams partially blocked Robert Randolph’s extra point kick, but the ball still managed to creep over the goal post for the tying point.
“We were trying to get to the quarterback, trying to pressure him, trying to be in the right place,” Davis said. “Again, we had chances – we probably had at least one or two or maybe even three opportunities for interceptions ourselves – but we just missed the ball and those balls have gone to us in the previous six ball games and today they didn’t go to us.”
Senior linebacker Mark Paschal added that “it was one of those things that seemed to snowball on us, and we weren’t able to recover.”
Virginia won the coin toss in the first overtime period, and after North Carolina was held to another Barth field goal – this one from 28 yards – Peerman scored his second touchdown of the game from two yards out to give his Cavaliers the 16-13 come-from-behind victory.
For the third time in four games, North Carolina played with fire by going to the prevent set in the closing minutes, and this time the Tar Heels were burned. Four weeks ago, Miami drove 49 yards in five plays in the final minute before Trimane Goddard intercepted a Robert Marve pass in the back of the end zone, and just last week, UNC recovered a fumble that halted Notre Dame’s 9-play, 63-yard march with three minutes to play.
In a cursed building that hasn’t allowed a North Carolina victory since 1981, that ability to live-and-die with turnovers came to an end.
North Carolina entered this weekend leading the nation with a plus-1.83 turnover margin, and that top ranking was short-lived, as UNC lost that battle on Saturday, 3-0. But even with the Tar Heels coughing the ball up three times – once in Virginia territory – the Cavaliers only managed three points on those turnovers.
Virginia was held to 59 total yards of offense in the first half, and that lack of production led head coach Al Groh to scrap his Pro-I formations in favor of a spread attack out of the shotgun. But those changes didn’t make much difference until the end.
North Carolina started this contest by dominating the line of scrimmage, as Shaun Draughn (138 yards on 30 carries) tallied 48 yards on UNC’s opening possession, ending with a one-yard Ryan Houston touchdown run. Houston finished with 32 carries on 11 yards.
Cam Sexton (16-of-25 for 166 yards and two interceptions) continued to rely on Hakeem Nicks (90 yards on six receptions) as his primary wideout option, but the Tar Heels struggled to find an adequate replacement for Brandon Tate. Cooter Arnold, Greg Little, Anthony Parker-Boyd, as well as Johnny White and Kendric Burney on specials teams, attempted to fill that void, but there’s no doubt that Tate’s spark was absent in Charlottesville.
“We knew schematically it was going to be difficult against them, because of the way they play,” Sexton said. “They did a good job adjusting to what we were doing. I don’t think they got fooled twice on much. I think it just comes down to a lack of execution on our part.”
North Carolina totaled 332 yards of offense and won the time of possession battle, 34:13-25:47, but in this most unholy place for the Tar Heels, the statistics never seem to matter.