North Carolina’s Tar Heels didn’t come to Raleigh on Saturday to just scare N.C. State, force the Wolfpack to sweat out a victory or prove the oddsmakers wrong.
The Tar Heels, in their last two games, had scored a road win at Pittsburgh and scored 65 points a week ago on Western Carolina. Why not a third straight win to finish November?
Even better, the Heels had won their past two games at Carter-Finley Stadium. Why not a third time?
“This team is full of fighters, of guys who love to compete,” senior defensive back M.J. Stewart said.
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After the first half and well into the third quarter Saturday, UNC held a 14-12 lead, was making plays and making those wearing red in the crowd of 57,600 at Carter-Finley antsy. The Pack was aching to send out its 20 seniors with a victory, earn an eighth win and enhance its bowl possibilities, but the Tar Heels were making things sticky.
But as UNC coach Larry Fedora later said, “We just ran out of gas.”
The Pack’s Nyheim Hines had touchdown runs of 54 and 48 yards in finishing with 196 yards on 22 carries. The Tar Heels never completely recovered from Hines’ two big bursts in losing 33-21.
The Tar Heels, in closing the season 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the ACC, have been hurting everywhere in the lineup, their injury list a long one. Against the Pack there was no depth at linebacker and an injury forced safety Allen Artis to shift to linebacker.
“I will tell you this, the 11 guys we put on the field, they fought,” Fedora said. “We had some guys out there that weren’t playing in the positions that they should be playing, but they did what they had to do and tried to help this team win. They gave everything they had.”
Sophomore quarterback Nathan Elliott, the lefty from Texas who became a late-season spark for UNC, passed for two first-half TDs, finding wideout Anthony Ratliff-Williams open on a deep post for a 51-yard score and then burning the Pack with a 21-yard scoring pass to tailback Michael Carter for the 14-12 lead.
Elliott, who was 21-of-45 for 277 yards, added a third TD pass with 8:16 left in the fourth quarter. The Tar Heels, despite the taking the body blows from Hines’ runs, had clawed back within 27-21.
“It’s what you’ve seen all year. These guys haven’t quit,” Elliott said.
That put the pressure back on N.C. State, but the Pack responded with a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Jaylen Samuels’ 10-yard touchdown run with 1:33 remaining. Also helping the Pack was a 15-yard facemark penalty against UNC, which had a few critical penalties in the second half.
A roughing-the-passer call against defensive end Malik Carney in the third quarter was costly, coming before a Wolfpack fumble after a pass reception that the Tar Heels recovered. The Pack’s Kyle Bambard would miss a field-goal try, but UNC was denied a potential game-changing play.
On their next possession, Tar Heels guard Khaliel Rodgers was called for a personal foul. A shanked punt soon followed, and on the Pack’s first play, Hines had the 54-yarder to give the Pack the lead.
It all turned that quickly.
For UNC, the season began with losses to California and Louisville, both at Kenan Stadium. After a blowout win against Old Dominion, the Tar Heels began a six-game skid with a 27-17 loss to Duke at Kenan, and the injuries mounted.
Elliott got his chance to play after Fedora first turned to Brandon Harris, the transfer from LSU, and redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt. UNC had 19 first-time starters this season, including eight freshmen.
“We’ll go back now and evaluate everything, everything we do in the program,” Fedora said.
That evaluation may have begun Saturday outside the UNC locker room, where Fedora huddled with athletic director Bubba Cunningham.
Stewart passed on a chance after last season to enter the NFL draft but said he would have no regrets about his decision.
“It was good for the young guys to see,” he said. “They have seen the low. It can only go up from here.
“I’m so proud of this team. I couldn’t be any happier. They fought and finished strong.”