Missed opportunities plague game
UNC drops close contest to USCSports
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Media Credit: DTH/Larry Baum North Carolina receiver Brandon Tate barely misses a catch on a deep ball from quarterback T.J. Yates during the second quarter of UNC's 21-15 loss against No. 7 South Carolina on Saturday at Kenan Stadium. The play was one of many missed chances for UNC as it fell to 2-5 on the season. Tate was knocked out of the game by a South Carolina tackle.
With the clock ticking its final seconds, the football drifted in the air as all eyes watched it float towards the end zone, knowing that where it came down would decide the game.
And maybe that was the most surprising part of North Carolina's 21-15 loss against No. 7 South Carolina - that despite an 18-point deficit and repeated missed opportunities, the Tar Heels had a chance to snag a win late in the fourth quarter.
The Hail Mary pass fell incomplete, batted down by two South Carolina defenders. But the hope that fueled UNC's fourth quarter comeback was a soothing bandage after the Tar Heels repeatedly shot themselves in the foot.
"I hope they take it as encouragement," head coach Butch Davis said. "These kids are fighting."
The game's first half looked like the teams' records and rankings would predict as USC (6-1) got three touchdown passes from quarterback Chris Smelley to take a 21-3 lead on the Tar Heels (2-5).
UNC struggled to run the ball (48 yards) and pass it (64 yards) in the half, and failed to convert two chances because of a missed field goal and a red-zone interception.
But after the break, the Gamecocks turned conservative while the Tar Heel defense buckled down.
"The game was a kind of tale of two cities," Butch Davis said. "The first half we struggled slowing them down, we were kind of out of sync and out of rhythm defensively."
The UNC defense was rock solid in the second half, allowing only 62 yards and forcing five punts while South Carolina kept the ball on the ground instead of airing it out like they did in the first half.
"It was a sad second half for South Carolina, and I'm responsible for that putrid offense," USC coach Steve Spurrier said.
"We got to where we were ahead 21-3 and our defense was playing well, so I'm calling that conservative run, run crap, but even when we tried to throw we couldn't hit anything."
The result was a zero on the board for South Carolina's second half points and loads of confidence for UNC's rapidly improving defense.
"They may have had, clearly without question, their finest performance of the season," Davis said.
"You win those kinds of games when you are down 21-3 like we were at halftime, you win those games with your defense," he said. "It just doesn't allow them to ever score again."
While the defense refused to give in, the UNC offense found its stride in the fourth quarter in large part because Hakeem Nicks - who missed most of the third with a sprained ankle - caught fire.
His first play after returning was a 23-yard first-down grab, and he later hooked up with T.J. Yates on a 27-yard fourth-down conversion.
"I told him that I would get the first," Nicks said. "And he trusted in me."
Seemingly willing his team to a late-game comeback, Nicks finished with eight catches for 114 yards.
But it was the depressing errors at crucial times that doomed the Tar Heels to another close-but-not-close-enough decision - their fourth loss by seven or fewer points.
"Every single one of these games is just so close, and it hurts more and more," Yates said. "You get closer and closer against better teams, but there's little things that we've got to do to get us over the hump."
Those little things came in all forms - a personal foul penalty, three burned timeouts, an interception by Joe Dailey on a wide receiver pass and a botched extra point.
Davis took responsibility for the timeouts - "That's clearly on me," he said - and pointed straight to those missed opportunities to explain what cost UNC the game.
"To beat a good football team you have to hit on some of those opportunities," Davis said.
The final opportunity, of course, was Yates' sky-high pass to the goal line as time ran out.
For a few seconds, the game, the comeback and the fan-thrilling Saturday hung in the balance.
That was an opportunity that the Tar Heels created for themselves.