After being dominated for the first three quarters of Friday night’s game against Wake Forest, North Carolina found life.
The Tar Heels trailed 21-0 in the third quarter, before scoring 18 unanswered points to cut Wake Forest’s deficit to three points.
Before Friday’s game, the Tar Heels, behind freshman quarterback Sam Howell, engineered two fourth-quarter comebacks to begin the season 2-0.
But against Wake Forest, UNC ran out of time and lost 24-18, snapping a two-game winning streak.
It was the Tar Heels’ first loss of the season.
UNC had its chance, though. Trailing by six with 1:09 left, Howell and the Tar Heels got the ball at their own 25-yard-line. But they couldn’t get past the Wake Forest 42.
The Tar Heels’ defense was not great early. And their offense was terrible.
The Tar Heels had nine drives in the first half. Eight ended in punts. The only one that didn’t end in a punt, ended in a fumble.
UNC sophomore running back Javonte Williams lost the ball when he was tackled by Wake Forest safety Nasir Greer with 3:30 left in the first quarter. The Demon Deacons recovered the football at the UNC 20, and two plays and 28 seconds later, turned it into a touchdown.
The Tar Heels failed to answer time and time again, and the Demon Deacons opened the game with a 21-0 lead.
“We didn’t do anything well offensively in the first half,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “It was just really poor, and again, give Wake Forest credit.”
A 49-yard field goal from kicker Noah Ruggles gave the Tar Heels their first points of the game late in the third quarter, and started the comeback.
The Tar Heels followed up the field goal with two touchdowns on their next two possessions. The last one was a 17-yard touchdown pass from Howell to sophomore wide receiver Dyami Brown with six minutes left.
That touchdown cut Wake’s lead 21-18.
But Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman answered. He made two critical plays inside four minutes.
On second-and-16, after being sacked by UNC linebacker Tomon Fox, Newman found Scotty Washington over the middle for a 27-yard pass.
Then on third-and-2, Newman avoided a sack, and scrambled four yards for a first down.
The Demon Deacons ended the drive with a field goal to extend their lead to 24-18 with 1:09 left in the game.
And the Tar Heels couldn’t finish the comeback.
“They made one heck of a comeback tonight,” Brown said of his team. “Just too short.”
Howell finished the game completing 17 of 28 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
UNC freshman punter Ben Kiernan was much better in Friday’s game than he was last week against Miami. He averaged 27.5 yard per punt against the Hurricanes.
Against Wake Forest, in a game where he was much busier, he averaged 46 yards per punt, including three that went for 50+ yards.
The Demon Deacons entered the game with one of the worst passing defenses in the country. They were ranked 123rd out of 130 FBS teams. But the Tar Heels made them look like the ‘85 Bears in the first two quarters.
The Tar Heels had 22 passing yards in the first half and 49 rushing yards.
“At the end of the day, this was on me,” Howell said. “I’ve got to play a lot better for our team to win.”
All the attention will be on UNC’s offense for coming back. But it was the Tar Heels’ defense that gave the offense a chance.
After giving up 21 points in the first half, the Tar Heels gave up only three points to the Demon Deacons in the second half. They forced one turnover — an interception by senior safety Myles Dorn — and brought out their new turnover belt.
The Tar Heels were without starting defensive tackle Jason Strowbridge, who was dealing with a sore ankle. He was dressed, but was ruled out minutes before the game.
Strowbridge, who is 6-5, 285 pounds, missed spring camp with a foot injury before returning in the summer. Through two games, he had five tackles and two tackles for loss.
“He’s a pro player,” Brown said. “He’s our best pass rusher, maybe our best defensive player, so you really miss him.”
UNC starting tight end Carl Tucker and wide receiver Antoine Green also missed Friday’s game with lower body injuries.
2 The Tar Heels managed only two first downs in the first half. Their first, first down did not occur until 11:24 left in the first half.
10 The number of times UNC’s Ben Kiernan punted the ball. At one point, he punted it on six consecutive possessions.
18 The number of points the Tar Heels scored in the second half. That included the two fourth quarter touchdowns from Howell.