The celebration for North Carolina didn’t spill over into Saturday.
Virginia’s Kurt Benkert passed for 249 yards and two scores, including an 81-yard touchdown throw to Olamide Zaccheaus in the third quarter, and Jordan Ellis had 136 rushing as the Cavaliers edged the Tar Heels 20-14 at Kenan Stadium.
On Friday, there was happiness and relief at UNC when the NCAA announced no sanctions would be levied after years of investigations into academic-fraud allegations. The mood was buoyant Friday night when UNC coach Roy Willams and the basketball team raised its 2017 NCAA championship banner at “Late Night with Roy” in the Smith Center.
But football has been another matter this season, and the Tar Heels now have dropped to 1-6 after a fourth straight loss and 0-4 in the ACC. UNC is 0-5 in home games.
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Freshman tailback Michael Carter, who rushed for 157 yards, gave the Tar Heels a needed spark early in the second half with a 56-yard run that set up a touchdown and then a 47-yard run for a score. But UNC could get little elsewhere offensively as quarterback Brandon Harris, given the start by UNC coach Larry Fedora after a strong week of practice, had three passes picked off and threw for 46 yards.
The Tar Heels did threaten late after recovering a Benkert fumble at the UNC 27, but Harris was sacked on fourth down at the Virginia 37. The Tar Heels wanted a face-mask call against Virginia but there was no flag and the Cavs ran out the clock.
“I’m proud of the effort our guys are playing with,” Fedora said. “We’ve got to find a way to get over the hump. Somebody’s got to step up in a key situation and make a play. It kills me that I can’t help them get over the hump or I haven’t been able to get them over the hump at this point.”
UNC had another near-miss on a big play earlier in the fourth. Cornerback M.J. Stewart appeared to recover a fumble on the sideline near midfield and could have scored. But Stewart was out of bounds when he first touched the ball and Virginia retained possession.
“A missed opportunity on my part,” Stewart said. “I have to have a little more football IQ and know where I am.”
The Tar Heels had won seven straight in the series and were ranked No. 22 a year ago when they ripped Virginia 35-14 in Charlottesville, Va. But injuries and inconsistent play have hamstrung UNC this season while the Cavs (5-1, 2-0 ACC) are having their best start in a decade under second-year coach Bronco Mendenhall.
“Another hard-fought game between ACC opponents,” Mendenhall said. “To their credit they came back. But to our credit we came back again. And that’s really what football is -- you just keep bouncing back and getting up.”
The first half was a grinding game that had some hard hits but a dearth of sparkling offensive plays. That changed quickly in the second half.
Carter ripped off the 56-yard run for the Tar Heels, then had a 1-yard touchdown run to put UNC on the board.
Later in the third quarter, Carter broke off the 47-yard TD run down the left side. Just like that, he had six carries for 122 yards and two scores in the game, and the Tar Heels had the 14-10 lead.
The Cavaliers had an answer: Zaccheaus’ 81-yard catch-and-run down the right sideline late in the third quarter – two UNC defenders missing a chance to tackle him – then a 27-yard field goal by A.J. Mejia early in the fourth for a 20-14 lead.
Virginia methodically took the 10-0 halftime lead. Benkert’s 10-yard pass to tight end Evan Butts was ruled a touchdown late in the first half after a review, and Mejia had a 20-yard field goal after a long Virginia drive.
Virginia ran 78 plays to UNC’s 53, had 405 total yards to UNC’s 257 and had the ball for nearly 40 minutes in the game. Ellis, who had 27 carries, had his first 100-yard rushing game.
“Jordan Ellis is tough,” Mendenhall said. “He probably had the most impact on the game of anyone on the team. He kept falling forward and falling forward, running hard.”