"Even if they had made that field goal, I feel like we would have had a chance to win," defensive end E.J. Wilson said. "They got a first down and got to wind some more time off the clock."
They never got the chance to find out.
The Tar Heels were called for offsides. First down Pitt. Game over. Not technically, however - the Tar Heels did get the ball back - but without a precious minute of time and minus all but one timeout. Technically, it was doable, but for all practicable purposes, that jump offsides ended the game.
In addition, the Tar Heels didn't have to wait until the Panthers were within field goal range to force a kick. The Panthers, in fact, converted a fourth and inches earlier in the drive.
That offside did define the Tar Heels' season. One of the most memorable quotes from the golf classic "Tin Cup" has protagonist Roy McAvoy explaining why he attempted a nearly impossible shot – twice – this way:
"I hit it again because that shot was a defining moment, and when a defining moment comes along, you define the moment... or the moment defines you."
Like it or not, that moment, that offsides call, defined UNC's 2009 season.
Cam Thomas was called for the offside, but in reality it was a team effort. The Pitt center may have delayed the snap a little, and there may have been a head bob, things that savvy teams do in those situations to pull the other team off. There was a time out before the attempt, and like they do so many other times, the staff reminded the field goal coverage team to wait for the snap of the ball.
"We emphasize (waiting for the snap of the ball in those situations) every day, for 365 days, watch the football," head coach Butch Davis said. "We talk about in practice, we talk about it at timeouts, we talk about it in team meetings, we talk about it in special teams meetings, about everybody making sure that, 1) you don't line up in the neutral zone, 2) that you don't allow yourself to get drawn offside with a hard count or a head bob or any of that stuff."
So what happened? How does almost the entire defense jump offside in such a critical situation, one that is going to dictate whether you win or lose?
"There is so much adrenalin going, you know, it is hard," safety Deunta Williams said. "It is really hard to stay on side. The whole key to getting underneath one of their guys is to get the jump on them, so he wanted to get a good jump, so he jumped."
Everyone, from Butch Davis to every player interviewed, said the right things following this loss. They congratulated the other team, they talked about next year (Deunta Williams announced he is coming back for 2010 and that he is recruiting other juniors to do the same), they talked about the hardships they've had to overcome this season, the sadness they feel for the seniors losing their last game, and how it is on to 2010 and better things.
The reality is that this was a team that was always an offsides call away, short a minute on a two-minute drill, slightly out of field goal range, or had one too many mistakes. This was a team missing one too many pieces of the puzzle to be better than 8-5.
There were some thrilling victories, no doubt - none greater than beating Virginia Tech on the road - and other games that North Carolina was lucky enough to win - like on the road at Connecticut - but if you were going to take a snapshot of the 2009 season, it would be the moment where Cam Thomas is being flagged for being offsides on a 47-yard field goal attempt with the outcome of the game hanging in the balance. It was a microcosm of the season, and the way this author will always remember it.