"It's disappointing to lose the game, but I'm very proud of this football team and the strides that we've made and the things that we've done to put ourselves in position to win eight games and deserve the right to play in a bowl game," UNC head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his postgame press conference.
The Tar Heels suffered its fourth defeat in seven games despite a mind-boggling display by Nicks, who caught eight passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns in his hometown.
Bruce Carter (seven tackles, two sacks) sacked Mountaineer quarterback Pat White (26-of-32 passing for 332 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) on fourth down with less than nine minutes left in regulation to give the Tar Heels the ball on the West Virginia 40-yard line holding a 30-24 lead. But Shaun Draughn (17 carries for 65 yards) fumbled two plays later, effectively turning the momentum in the Mountaineers' favor – for good. It was Draughn's third lost fumble in the past three games.
"You have the chance at that time with the lead to maybe go down and score certainly take it to more than a touchdown," Davis said. "We were hopeful that he got his knee on the ground before it came out. It's disappointing when something like that happens. You hate it for Shaun and you hate it for the football team."
White delivered by marching his club down the field 70 yards in just three plays, culminating in a 20-yard touchdown strike to Alric Arnett for the final 31-30 margin.
North Carolina's defense, which allowed 455 total yards of offense, got a pivotal stop when Da'Norris Searcy (10 tackles, two sacks) sacked White on a 3rd-and-5 with 3:21 left to play, giving the Tar Heels another opportunity from their own 26-yard-line.
But Pat Lazear stepped in front of Cooter Arnold on a short in-route to intercept T.J. Yates (15-of-25 for 211 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) and clinch the victory for the Mountaineers.
"I was a little blinded to that linebacker," Yates said. "I should have known he was there, but it was a bad read and a mistake on my part."
Normally, a season-ending loss in the final minutes would overshadow one individual's performance, but that wasn't the case on Saturday. Nicks, who most expect to enter his name in the 2009 NFL Draft and forgo his final year of eligibility, held his own personal workout for pro scouts and general managers at Bank of America Stadium, home to the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
His first reception, on the Tar Heels' second possession, set the tone for his awe-inspiring highlight reel of a day. Yates threw into double-coverage 40 yards down the middle of the field, but Nicks reached back to grab the football off Ellis Lankster's hands before carrying Keith Tandy 10 yards into the end zone for a 73-yard score to tie the score at 7.
Next up was a 66-yard touchdown reception in which the junior broke two tackles down the right sideline after fielding the ball from Arnold on a designed wide receiver pass play to match another Mountaineer score at 14. His third touchdown catch – a 25-yarder to the left corner of the end zone – occurred with 10:37 remaining in the first half.
"I just wanted to make plays when my name was called on," Nicks said. "I just wanted to contribute to the offense the best way possible, and when they called on me, I wanted to make plays in my hometown."
But his most spectacular play of the day came on 3rd-and-7 shortly after West Virginia took the lead at 24-23 in the third quarter. Nicks was running to the left sideline, and had to reach back to grab Yates' throw with his left hand. He then moved the ball from his left hand to his right hand – behind his back – to get the necessary eight yards for the first down.
Yates would cap that drive with a four-yard scamper into the end zone to put UNC on top, 30-24.
Nicks became the sole owner of Carolina records for career receptions (181), career touchdown receptions (21), single-season touchdown receptions (12), bowl game receiving yards (217) and bowl game receiving touchdowns (3) - all in the first half. The Charlotte junior now holds 14 UNC receiving records.
"I don't know that there's been very many players that I've been around that I respect as much as Hakeem," Davis said. "You want to talk about humility and being humble, to be as big a star as he is and to deliver the performances that he has over the last three years… He's a huge gamer."
But the Mountaineers held Nicks to just three catches for 36 yards in the second half, which cut North Carolina's offensive production from 264 yards before intermission to 106 yards after the break.
"After the first half, I drew a lot of attention," said Nicks, who indicated that he will sit down with Davis and his family to make a final decision about whether or not he will return for his senior season in Chapel Hill. "They played very well. They kept a safety over top and kept him deep, and kept the corner [up] – it was like a two-man press."
White connected with Arnett on a 44-yard touchdown pass and then with Bradley Starks on a 35-yarder to put West Virginia up 21-14 less than three minutes remaining in a shootout first quarter, but Tar Heel safety Deunta Williams intercepted him in the end zone to end the first half, preserving a 23-21 UNC lead at halftime.
Williams (seven tkl, 1.0 tackles for loss) also tackled running back Noel Devine (13 carries for 61 yards and one TD) at the goal for a safety, and added a fumble recovery in the third quarter.
North Carolina finishes the 2008 season with an 8-5 mark, despite starting the campaign with a 5-1 record. But even so, the Tar Heels first winning record since 2001 provides for a stepping stone for where Davis wants this program to go in the coming years.
"This game will make us a better football team, and this will make us a better program for this experience," Davis said.