In the first quarter of this game, North Carolina established itself as the physical aggressor. The Tar Heels moved the ball effectively on the ground, while limiting the Cavaliers' offense. UNC held a slim and uncomfortable lead for 57 minutes, but the Cavaliers made adjustments during the course of the game which negated that initial advantage. Perhaps most telling, the Tar Heels lost their aggressive edge when they needed it the most, -- down the stretch.
The result was a 16-13 overtime loss in Charlottesville that will linger on in memory, like so many of its predecessors.
THE LAST THREE MINUTES
The final three minutes of the contest, plus the overtime, seemed like a separate ballgame. Leading 10-3 with 2:22 left to go into the game, North Carolina went into a prevent defense that effectively prevented them from the win.
"We really should have answered up at the end and stopped them," safety Deunta Williams said. "I don't know how long they drove, but it was a pretty long drive – like I said, [UVa ran] the same play basically, a couple of corner balls, and a couple of fade routes, and it was a combination of all that stuff and good play calling by their coaching."
Rushing just three players while dropping eight, the Tar Heels looked on futilely while Virginia marched 82 yards in just nine plays to bring the score to 10-9. The Heels still nearly won in regulation, as Williams got a piece of the extra point and nearly blocked it.
"Yeah, actually I hit it," Williams said. "[It missed by] probably our six or seven inches …I got a pretty good piece of it."
But the story of the game was the collapse on Virginia's final drive.
"I think we played the defense a little wrong," Williams continued. "I think it was good calling. I mean you can call it a prevent, a corner is supposed to back up and little bit and we're all supposed to stay a little deep, but I think we played it too soft. We didn't sink as much as we needed to and on a couple of plays I didn't get over on top of No. 1 like I needed to. I just think it was overall bad coverage for us to be in at that time because of the way we played it - I think it was a good call by our coach, Coach E [Everett Withers], so it was just the players that didn't execute it right today."
Senior linebacker Mark Paschal echoed his teammate's sentiments.
"I don't think it was because we dropped eight, we just didn't play worth a hoot the last drive," Paschal said. "We had so many opportunities to make some plays and we just had some coverage busts."
Head coach Butch Davis also attributed the collapse to missed opportunities.
"We were trying to get to the quarterback, trying to pressure him, trying to be in the right place," Davis said about the final three minutes. "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."
DRAUGHN, OFFENSE START STRONG, THEN STAGGERS
With his first career start and with Greg Little shifting over to wide receiver, Shaun Draughn got the overwhelming bulk of the touches. The Tar Heels rolled up 99 yards of rushing in the first half, while also notching 11 first downs (to UVa's 3 first downs), on the way to a 7-0 lead after the first stanza.
Though Ryan Houston didn't get nearly as many touches (11 carries for 34 yards), he played the role of "touchdown vulture," running the ball in from the one-yard line on UNC's first possession of the game – the first time North Carolina has scored a touchdown on its first possession of the game since the season-ending game against Duke last year. Houston is still doing a great job of picking up short yardage when necessary.
Draughn ended up rushing the ball 30 times, and netted 138 rushing yards, a 4.6 yards-per-carry average. At the end of the day, it wasn't enough, but it was one of the best rushing performances in several years – though 80 of his yards came in the first quarter.
Virginia set up its victory by slowing up the Tar Heels and forcing them to punt from mid-field as drives stalled.
"We were having some success running the football, making some plays, but we didn't capitalize on the field position opportunities and score as many points," Davis said. "Too many of our drives ended in about fourth and three at about the 40-yard line and having to punt and trying to dive (the punt) inside the five."
One reason that the final three minutes stood out was that the UNC defense was as aggressive as it has been all year up until that point. The back side of the UNC defense, the linebackers and secondary, were more active pre-snap than in any prior game this season. The design of the defense was intended to narrow the running lanes Cavalier Cedric Peerman would have available, while also giving Marc Verica many different looks in coverage. By the third period, the Cavaliers had, in desperation, abandoned the Power-I formation for a spread-look offense run out of the shotgun.
The statistics tell the story - Virginia rushed the ball 27 times for a net gain of only 58 yards – 2.1 yards-per-carry.
HEELS YIELD TURNOVERS, BUT LIMIT POINTS
Though the Tar Heels gave up three turnovers, they only gave away three points. Cameron Sexton's first half interception did not lead to any Cavalier points, but a second pick at the 13:15 mark of the third quarter yielded a field goal to the Hoos and created some momentum for Virginia.
"I haven't turned the ball over very much this year and then today those two turnovers, they're just costly. I mean you can't do that and win football games," Sexton said.
The Tar Heels turned it over on their very next possession when the Cavaliers ripped the ball out of the hands of Hakeem Nicks after a completion to the 50-yard line. Virginia completed some big third-down plays on the ensuing possession, but its drive stalled on the 22-yard line. Bruce Carter blocked the following 39-yard field goal attempt, denying the Hoos any points off Nicks' fumble.
Turnovers are always undesirable, and often contribute to losses, but Sexton need not shoulder the blame for this one. It was the failure to hold a seven-point lead with 2:22 remaining in the game, after limiting Virginia to three points for 57 minutes, that deserves the spotlight for this loss.
"THIS ONE HURTS MORE THAN VIRGINIA TECH"
That was the message from Mark Paschal, and it didn't take a mind reader to tell this loss hit the Tar Heels very hard. From Paschal, to Sexton, to Williams, you could see the anger and hurt of this loss.
"Like I said it kind of snowballed on us and we couldn't stop the bleeding so to speak," an obviously emotional Mark Paschal said.
What remains in question is how the Tar Heels respond to this piece of adversity.