It was not pretty at times, but the North Carolina football players did their part Thursday night. The same players that had started the season with a disappointing 1-4 record had now done everything in their power to pull off one of the biggest upsets so far in the college football season.
In front of 56,000 screaming Carolina fans dressed in black at Kenan Stadium, the UNC football team scratched, clawed and fought their way to a 23-20 lead over the No. 10 Miami Hurricanes with 6 minutes left in the game.
The Carolina offense that gained 500 total yards against one of the best defenses in the NCAA was facing a 3rd down at their own 49 yard line. Needing to gain one yard to help put the game away, one unnecessary coaching decision cost UNC a chance at the upset.
With 33 seconds remaining on the play clock and 6:09 left in the game, umpire Jim Eckl marked the ball for play on this crucial 3rd and inches. As the game clock snuck under 6 minutes remaining, quarterback Bryn Renner huddled up the offense, but did not break the huddle until there were seven seconds left on the game clock – at the same time a number of new Tar Heels came onto the field from the sideline in order to make substitutions.
These late substitutions were drawn up by the coaching staff as a design, in order to give the defense the required three seconds for their substitutions, but not much more than those three seconds. The thought behind the play is not a terrible one; however it backfired directly in head coach Larry Fedora’s face.
Instead of Miami running their set of substitutions on the field with 4 seconds left on the play clock, and UNC snapping the ball as they clock ran down while the Hurricanes were in mass confusion, Carolina was called for a delay of game. Eckl stood over the ball until there was one second left on the play-clock because he didn’t think Miami had enough time to run their substitutions on to the field. Due to the fact that the offense is required to be set in formation for one second, there was not enough time for UNC to get the play off.
While the argument could be made Eckl stood over the ball for too long, causing North Carolina to get flagged for delay of game, the bottom line is there was no need for any trickery from the UNC coaching staff at this point in the game.
North Carolina rushed for more than 100 yards on offense for the game, and had three different ball-carriers that were averaging at least 3.8 yards per carry. There was plenty of reason to believe that if UNC lined up with their best short-yardage personnel in the game, they had a great chance at picking up the few inches they needed to gain the first down.
Unfortunately, the offense was called for a delay game which then seemed to lead to even more confusion. On the now 3rd and 5, right tackle Jon Heck was caught moving before the snap, and then on the 3rd and 10, Renner was sacked for a loss of four yards.
A play that should have been 3rd down and less than a foot from midfield, ended up leading to 4th and 14 with punter Tommy Hibbard punting the ball from inside his own 30-yard line.
Of course, all the defense had to do was not let the Miami offense drive 90 yards down the field in less than five minutes – but the truth is, the defense should have never been put in that position.
The North Carolina defense forced four turnovers on the night, and had only allowed one offensive touchdown to the Hurricanes – a team that was averaging over 45 points per game heading into the night.
Even if UNC did not score any points on the drive where the coaching decision cost them, Carolina still would have been able to burn some of the clock and possibly make Miami use some of their timeouts in order to get the ball back.
The Hurricanes were having some trouble throwing the ball on the UNC secondary all night, as evident by the four interceptions Miami quarterback Stephen Morris threw. However, since they had more than five minutes and all their timeouts, they were able to run the ball ten times on the 13 play drive, gaining 56 of the 90 yards on the ground.
Coach Fedora and his coaching staff have done a great job in the first year and a half at building excitement around the football program, even at a so-called “basketball school”. It was obvious that all of the coaches had their players ready to play for this nationally televised game against a top-10 opponent, and for that, the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit.
Not to mention, Fedora and his staff walked into a situation with NCAA sanctions and scholarship reductions due to the prior coaching staff’s mistakes. Most fans knew it was going to take some time for Fedora to right the ship and get North Carolina football moving in a positive direction again.
However, most fans did not expect a poor coaching decision to cost the football team a program-changing victory over a top-10 team in the country.
It is decisions like the one Fedora made on 3rd and inches, to try and get cute with substitution patterns instead of lining up and trusting the offense to gain less than a yard, that will cause excitement to fade quickly and players to lose trust in a coaching staff that has done a respectable job up until this point.