It was a tumultuous third quarter, one that began well for UNC. The Tar Heels stalled the Seminoles' opening drive, forced a punt, then drove 45 yards in five plays to take what looked like an insurmountable 24-6 lead. Then the FSU offensive floodgates opened. The Seminoles would score two touchdowns before the third quarter was over and trailed by only four points, 24-20, headed into the final stanza, with possession of the ball.
It was at that crucial juncture that a UNC team reeling on both sides of the ball (a T.J. Yates' interception ended a UNC drive and the Seminoles scored quickly thereafter on a 98-yard touchdown pass) had a chance to right the ship.
The Seminoles began the fourth quarter continuing a drive from the third, and looked as if they might score their third unanswered touchdown. After one additional first down on that drive, UNC linebacker Kevin Reddick dropped running back Chris Thompson for a loss of three yards. Kendric Burney then tackled FSU tight end Beau Reilford for a four-yard loss. Faced with third-and-17, Christian Ponder came up six yards short on his ensuing completion. Even though the Seminoles kicked a field goal and brought the score to 24-23, UNC's defense had stopped the bleeding.
This was the place, if there was one, for the UNC team to make a stand.
"I (did) feel like we had things back under control," defensive end E.J. Wilson said. "I felt like we were going to go out there and keep doing what we were doing and finish the game, finish the half strong. But we didn't come out and do that and they out-executed us."
Kendric Burney added, "After all the big plays that had happened to us (in the third quarter), I still felt we had the game in control. We just didn't take control."
After a penalty pushed them back to their own eight-yard line, the UNC offense proceeded to slash and gash the FSU run defense for 83 yards. Runs by Shaun Draughn (16 yards, 26 yards), Greg Little (11 yards), and Jheranie Boyd (21 yards) had the FSU defense on its heels. Ultimately the Tar Heels had to settle for a field goal of their own, pushing the score back to 27-23. But both sides of the ball had shown some backbone, the Seminoles would need a touchdown to win, and would also have to give the ball back to UNC with too little time to send the game into overtime.
That's exactly what they did.
I may be the first, but I certainly won't be the last to question the decision to punt at the 4:10 mark. The Tar Heels took the ball over after the Seminoles had done what they had to do – score a touchdown – on their 29-yard line. They drove the ball to the Florida State 44-yard line, where the offense stalled. It was fourth-and-five, on Florida State's side of the football field.
There are lots of ways to analyze it. Maybe the Tar Heels down the ball inside the Florida State five-yard line instead of kicking it into the end zone – which netted the Heels only 24-yards on the exchange. Maybe the defense holds the Seminoles to a quick three-and-out and burns only one time out in the process – in which case the offense would have gotten the ball back in much better field position and with three minutes left. Had the Tar Heels gone for it on fourth-and-five, they would have given the ‘Noles the ball back around mid-field. Maybe it is simply the percentage play to punt in that situation, straight out of the head coach's manual.
What it might have also been was a bad decision. The way the UNC offense has been functioning all season, to ask it to kick its two-minute offense into gear with the game hanging on the line seems like a bridge too far.
"It's the coaches' decision, but as a fan and as a player, you always want to go for it," tight end Ed Barham said. "But the coach knows what's best, so he makes that call."
As it turned out, the Tar Heels got the ball back on their 21-yard line with 47 seconds left – or if you prefer, the death penalty. There was just no way this UNC offense - this year - was going to drive the ball 79-yards in 47 seconds. They didn't, and the game ended on a sack of T.J. Yates with the Tar Heels nowhere in sight of a field goal opportunity. In hindsight, the decision to punt with 4:10 left doesn't appear to have been a wise one.
It was just one decision out of many that had to be made, and perhaps placing the blame of this loss on that one decision gives it more weight than it deserves – then again, maybe not.