If you walked from Franklin Street through the University of North Carolina campus on your way to Kenan Stadium this past Saturday night, you could feel the buzz in the air. Everywhere you looked you could see fans squeezed into every parking space possible and the air was filled with the aroma of grill smoke. Live bands were set up around the fraternity court area to help add a soundtrack to the festive atmosphere. The sights and sounds of that walk to the stadium were everything that college football at its best is all about.
It wasn’t just the fact that the Tar Heels had a desirable evening kickoff time that drew all these people to Chapel Hill for another sold out crowd on Saturday night. No, this game was different.
For the first time since a Thursday night game at Duke in 2016, there was a ton on the line for North Carolina when it took the field against Virginia. First place in the ACC’s Coastal Division was on the line.
Ultimately, Virginia outlasted what appeared to be the beginning of more fourth quarter heroics from North Carolina’s freshman sensation quarterback, Sam Howell. The Cavaliers stopped the Tar Heels on fourth down, breaking up Howell’s attempted pass to sophomore wide receiver, Dyami Brown, with less than two minutes to go in the game. Virginia then ran the clock out to secure the win.
Even in defeat, Dyami Brown puts up ridiculous numbers! pic.twitter.com/awwB9Fy457
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 3, 2019
There is plenty of room for analysis after this game, starting with the magnitude of what was at stake.
Was the moment too big for Mack Brown’s team? The answer is no.
Once again, North Carolina battled down to their final possession with a chance to win. Even when Virginia twice stretched their lead in the second half to two touchdowns, the Tar Heels responded with touchdowns. Once again, they ran out of time.
In his opening remarks after the game, North Carolina head coach, Mack Brown, agreed.
“Congratulate Virginia,” he said.
“We knew it was two really good football teams that were so much alike. And the problem we had tonight is we didn’t stop their best player (Perkins). And their best player is one of the best players in the country. When you go into a game like this you need to stop him, and we didn’t stop him in the run or the pass.”
Brown continued, “These guys have played their guts out every week and every game has come down to the end. In fact, I thought we’d go into overtime tonight. And I was really disappointed. I thought we’d go into overtime when we got it down to the 4th-and-4, and I thought we’d go into overtime when we got it back. So, I was really disappointed that this one didn’t go into overtime, too.”
Simply put, Virginia made a few more plays than North Carolina to send them home to Charlottesville with the win. Specifically, the Cavaliers have a sensational quarterback of their own in Bryce Perkins, and he turned in one of the best performances in all of college football this season.
In fact, according to Jim Johnson of SouthernPigskin.com, he became only the 5th player since 2000 with at least 350 passing yards, three passing touchdowns, 100 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns in a single game versus a Power-5 opponent.
The Tar Heels didn’t have an answer for Perkins on defense.
Howell turned in a stellar performance of his own behind center for the Tar Heels. The true freshman was 15 of 29 for 353 yards and threw four touchdowns. Yes, you read that right. 15 completions for 353 yards.
North Carolina’s offense turned in an outstanding performance against one of the Top 15 defenses in the country. Brown had six receptions for 206 yards and three touchdowns, and the Tar Heels also added 186 yards rushing against the Cavaliers.
So where did it go wrong for North Carolina?
Throughout the season, Mack Brown has told his team that the most crucial part of any game is the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half. He was right.
Besides Perkins having his huge night, the Cavaliers really took control of the game at the end of the first half and the start of the second half. Late in the half, North Carolina had just scored a touchdown on a long pass from Howell to Brown.
However, Virginia responded by taking the ball right down the field to score the tying touchdown with 17 seconds left in the half, taking the air out of any momentum the Tar Heels had just established. Then, to open the second half, Perkins took off on a 65-yard touchdown run on the second play of the series. It was the second of four-straight touchdowns on four-straight possessions for the Cavaliers. Virginia never looked back after that, and that was the key to their win.
So where do these two teams go from here?
For Virginia, Bronco Mendenhall’s team appears to be in the driver’s seat in the ACC’s Coastal Division. They have two ACC games remaining, both at home against Georgia Tech and the season finale against Virginia Tech. Win both of those games and they will be in Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game.
For the Tar Heels, there is a lot to be excited about in the future. When you look at their dynamic offense, those four passing touchdowns were all from a freshman quarterback to sophomore wide receivers. In fact, don’t be surprised to find Howell on early preseason Heisman Trophy lists next year. Just don’t mention the future or next season to the players in North Carolina’s locker room.
They know this season isn’t over yet.
Despite missing out on a chance to move a step closer to one of their preseason goals, a Coastal Division title, they still have one huge goal remaining that is within their grasp. A bowl game. After missing out on being bowl eligible the last two seasons, a lot of guys in the Tar Heel locker room have never experienced the thrill of going to a bowl game. If they win two of their final three games of the season, the Tar Heels will be going bowling over the holidays.
After the game, North Carolina running back, Michael Carter, was asked if they felt the pressure of trying to make a bowl game now after the Virginia loss. He responded, “I don’t think it’s pressure. I just want to go to a bowl game. I want gifts. I want to spend more time with my friends. I want to play one more game. So, it’s motivation more than, ‘Oh my God, time’s running down.’”
There was a lot at stake in this game. Earlier in the week, Mack Brown mentioned that it’s fun to be playing meaningful games in November. That notion didn’t end with the loss to Virginia. The Tar Heels are not in the driver’s seat with regards to the Coastal Division title. However, they are in the driver’s seat on their journey to a bowl berth; and that makes every game left on their schedule a meaningful game for North Carolina.