This wasn’t how North Carolina expected its game with Virginia Tech to end.
Six overtimes and a 43-41 loss to a struggling team playing its third-string quarterback. The Tar Heels didn’t expect the Hokies to storm the field in celebration after punching it in one final time.
What they expected was to leave Blacksburg 4-3 and tied for first place in the ACC Coastal Division.
But it was the Tar Heels’ inability stop Virginia Tech’s running game, as well take advantage of golden opportunities, that ultimately did them in. And now they find themselves in a hole, having to win three of their remaining five games just to become bowl eligible.
In the second half, Virginia Tech went with its third-string quarterback, Quincy Patterson II, after Hendon Hooker injured his ankle late in the first half, and backup Ryan Willis struggled.
Patterson played for all but one series in the second half and the overtime periods. He threw it only six times and was used mostly to run. Yet, the Tar Heels still couldn’t stop him. He finished with 128 yards on 21 carries, all in the second half.
His biggest play was a 53-yard rushing touchdown late in the fourth quarter. He broke a few tackles on his way to the end zone to tie the score at 31 with a little more than four minutes left in regulation.
Still, the Tar Heels had multiple opportunities to win the game and each time came up short.
“I think there is a level of growth for all of us,” UNC coach Mack Brown said after the game. “We had our opportunities time and time, and time again, and when you get those opportunities, you’ve got to take them. And we just didn’t do that tonight.”
UNC’s loss to Virginia Tech is a setback for the Tar Heels, who, prior to this game, appeared to be turning a corner. UNC had narrowly lost to No. 1 Clemson on Sept. 28, then beat Georgia Tech 38-21 on Oct. 5 before its bye week.
Virginia Tech was supposed to be one of UNC’s easiest opponents left on its schedule.
The Tar Heels entered the game 3.5-point favorites, and favorites by some to win the ACC’s Coastal Division.
But UNC never established that it was the better team on Saturday. At halftime, the Tar Heels trailed 21-17.
“I was really disappointed right before the half,” Brown said. “There was about six minutes and 42 seconds left and Virginia Tech scores twice, and we have a three-and-out, and I thought that changed the momentum of the game. And then it went back and forth from that point. We’ve got to play better before the half.”
But the Tar Heels still had chances to win, and there were a number of opportunities missed in this game.
In the first quarter, UNC had a chance to go up by two touchdowns in the first five minutes of the game. After scoring a touchdown on their opening drive, UNC recovered a fumble and started its second drive at the Virginia Tech 34-yard line. But the Tar Heels’ drive eventually stalled at the Tech 9-yard line. They managed only a field goal.
In the third quarter, the Tar Heels had a chance to go up two scores again. UNC recovered another fumble and started its drive at the Virginia Tech 49-yard line. But four plays later, the Tar Heels turned it over on downs after attempting a fake punt on fourth-and-2.
“We thought it was there,” Brown said of the attempt. “They brought a guy up underneath, and we didn’t make our fake punt.”
The Hokies took advantage of the good field position, and seven minutes later tied the score, 24-24.
In the fourth quarter, with the score tied at 31, the Tar Heels got the ball back at their own 25-yard-line with 4:31 remaining. But the offense went three-and-out after gaining only 7 yards.
In the third overtime, after Virginia Tech kicker Brian Johnson missed a field goal to give the Hokies the lead, UNC’s Noah Ruggles had a chance to win it all. But he missed his 35-yard kick wide right.
And finally, in the sixth overtime, Howell was sacked on a two-point conversion attempt without passing it.
“We had plenty of opportunities to end the game,” Howell said. “We’ve just got to end it.”
UNC losing close games
The fourth quarter is something Tar Heels players pride themselves on. It had been an emphasis all offseason. But the Tar Heels have now lost four consecutive games that have been decided by six points or less. They are 2-4 in those games.
When asked whether he was worried how the loss would affect his team, Brown said, “No.”
“They’ve got to pick themselves back up and go to work,” Brown said. “What I’ve told them is take every opportunity we had that you’ve could have done something better, our coaches could have done something better, and learn from it because Duke will be here starting tomorrow.”
Winning the Coastal becomes a little harder after Saturday’s loss. UNC still has a chance to win the division. However, the Tar Heels will likely have to win their remaining games.
And it doesn’t get easier. UNC still has to face Duke, Virginia, Pitt, Mercer and N.C. State.
“This one is definitely one that is going to stick with us,” UNC junior wide receiver Rontavius Groves said. “It’s going to eat us up for a while, but we’ve just got to put it behind us and build off it.”