North Carolina (8-4, 4-4 ACC) held a 10-point first-half lead three different times at Carter-Finley Stadium, eventually taking a 24-14 margin into the break. But Russell Wilson (20-of-27, 259 yards, 4 TD) shook off a rough start and lit up the Tar Heels' vaunted defense in the second half, cutting the deficit to 24-21 with a 56-yard scoring strike to Owen Spencer (four catches for 130 yards, 2 TD) and then taking the lead for good with a 38-yarder – again to Spencer – in the fourth quarter.
Casey Barth's 38-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Alan Michael-Cash with 4:44 remaining in regulation, effectively ending UNC's chance to pull out its first victory in three tries against Tom O'Brien.
After North Carolina outgained N.C. State 313 to 111 in the first half, the Wolfpack flipped the tables and posted a 224-168 advantage after intermission.
The Tar Heels totaled a season-high 481 yards of offense, which surpassed the previous mark by 48 yards (433 vs. East Carolina). But two red-zone blunders (a Johnny White fumble at the goal line and the blocked field goal) and miscommunication in the defensive secondary overshadowed a solid T.J. Yates' performance (13-of-19, 280 yards, 2 TD, INT).
Greg Little posted a season-best 159 yards on six catches, while Jhay Boyd hauled in two passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns. White (seven carries for 83 yards, TD) and Ryan Houston (17 carries for 58 yards) combined to lead North Carolina's ground game, while Toney Baker churned out 62 yards on 17 carries for N.C. State.
INSIDE THE GAME
Mistakes Haunt a Solid Offensive Effort
If you take one thing away from Saturday's loss to N.C. State, it should be that T.J. Yates and his offense – for the first time in several weeks – played well enough for the Tar Heels to win.
"I thought our offense got a good start, put points on the board and moved the ball about as effectively as we have moved it in the last three or four weeks," said Butch Davis, who is now 0-3 against the Wolfpack as UNC's head coach.
Yates guided the Tar Heels to 24 points and 313 total yards of offense in the opening 30 minutes. That first-half yardage was 20 short of matching the program's third-best total for the season.
John Shoop's offense has relied on its defensive counterparts in light blue to score points and force turnovers that delivered a short field. But that didn't happen on Saturday. So Yates took what the defense gave him early, didn't force many bad passes and hit a pair of home run balls to Jhay Boyd.
In short, Yates did what he needed to do in order to put his team in position to win.
But a handful of critical mistakes kept UNC's point total lower than it should have been. Johnny White fumbled at the goal line instead of holding onto the ball for a touchdown. Alan Pelc drew a personal foul flag when the Tar Heels had a 1st-and-goal at the 10-yard-line.
Worst of all, North Carolina stood on the Wolfpack's 19-yard-line facing a 2nd-and-6 with six minutes to play and incurred a 12-yard-loss on a poorly executed reverse. A heavy dose of Ryan Houston would likely have given UNC a chance to score a game-winning field goal instead of scrambling on 3rd-and-18 to get back into Barth's kicking range.
"A lot of things that prevented us from scoring more often were self-inflicted," Davis said. "We had a touchdown called back because of a holding call. We [lost a touchdown] because we fumble at the one-foot-line. Ten penalties that take away any opportunities to maintain some really good positive field position, and maybe instead of trying a field goal, you're scoring a touchdown to win the game instead of having a field goal blocked."
Big Plays (or Lack Thereof)
The comment echoed through the cramped interview room underneath Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday.
"We gave up some big plays."
Davis muttered the phrase first, but the quote could eventually be attributed to any number of the Tar Heels that spent several minutes after the devastating loss talking to the media.
At halftime, it appeared as though N.C. State's players would be the ones offering those words up to reporters. Boyd had 35-yard and 70-yard touchdowns to his credit, as well as a 13-yard run. Greg Little added a 62-yard pass play, Johnny White churned out a 40-yard touchdown scamper and Zack Pianalto delivered a 20-yard catch of his own.
The Wolfpack, on the other hand, managed just four first-half plays over 10 yards – the longest of which went 14 yards.
Things would change dramatically after intermission.
While UNC produced five plays over 10 yards, only one was substantial – Houston's 42-yard prayer to Little on a designed halfback pass.
"Our defense made the plays to take away North Carolina's big plays," O'Brien said. "We made them work and it allowed us to get back in the game."
N.C. State pounded out seven plays over 10 yards in the second half, including five over 15 yards. The highlights, of course, were Wilson's touchdown passes to Owen Spencer (56 & 38).
According to Marvin Austin, this loss came down to one development over the final 30 minutes.
"They executed," UNC's starting defensive tackle said.
An Emerging Threat
The offseason talk centered on which North Carolina wide receivers would step up to fill the massive void left by Hakeem Nicks and Co. Greg Little (55 catches for 637 yards, 3 TD) has been the constant, while Erik Highsmith (34 catches for 387 yards, 2 TD) broke onto the scene like gangbusters.
And while Jheranie Boyd displayed his potential play-making ability in Week 3 against East Carolina with a 59-yard touchdown reception, the true freshman from Gastonia, N.C. is slowly evolving into a dangerous weapon for T.J. Yates.
Boyd caught a pair of touchdown passes against N.C. State – one for 70 yards and another for 35 – en route to his first career 100-yard receiving game. Shoop has slowly worked the speedy freshman into the running game plan via reverses, as evidenced by his three-yard touchdown run against Duke.
For the season, Boyd has caught 11 passes for 210 yards and four touchdowns, while running 19 times for 141 yards and a touchdown. Those statistics equate to an 11.7-yards-per-touch average.
"I feel very comfortable right now," Boyd said. "I'm making plays in the running and passing game, so it feels good."