By R.L. Bynum
RALEIGH — North Carolina blew a nine-point lead in the last two minutes, and a chance to ruin N.C. State’s ACC title chances.
After they had gone the first 58 minutes with only three penalties, three damaging Tar Heels penalties fueled State’s efforts as the Pack took a 34–30 victory Friday night before a packed Carter-Finley Stadium to end a two-game skid against UNC.
“I just told the team that we’ve got to finish and that’s all it is,” Coach Mack Brown said. “We’ve got to make plays down the stretch. We can’t have the penalties.”
Grayson Atkins appeared to put it away with a 50-yard field goal, his third of the game, with 2:12 left that barely made it over the crossbar.
State wasn’t done, though.
Pack QB Devin Leary hit a wide-open Emeka Emezie for a 64-yard touchdown play with 1:35 remaining. Then, the Pack (9–3, 6–2 ACC) recovered an onside kick.
“If we get the onside kick, the game’s over,” Brown said. “They only had one time out left. You’ve got to get the onside kick.”
A roughing-the-passer penalty and a pass-interference infraction by the Tar Heels (6–6, 3-5) helped lead to a 24-yard Leary-to-Emezie touchdown pass that won the game.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Brown said. “I’ve got to do a better job. I’m very disappointed in me.”
Yet another penalty, an ineligible-receiver-downfield infraction, hampered UNC’s final drive, which ended with a throw that fell harmlessly into the end zone.
“I think we got too excited too early,” Jeremiah Gemmel said of the reaction to Atkins’ late field goal. “Guys on the sideline just got too eager, too excited, too early, and I think guys got too excited that the game was won.”
Sam Howell ran for two touchdowns and threw for another in what could be his last game as a Tar Heel, but it wasn’t enough.
“We didn’t start fast but we kept fighting on both sides of the ball,” said Howell, who added that he felt OK after taking his share of hits. “We had some chances to kind of put the game away.”
Howell, who finished 14 of 26 passing for 147 yards and one touchdown and ran for 92 yards and two touchdowns, became the eighth player in ACC history to throw for 10,000 yards.
“There were a couple of pass plays where I could have put the ball in a better spot,” said Howell, who had Antoine Green drop two passes in the end zone.
The Tar Heels got a huge game from senior running back British Brooks. He had 176 career rushing yards in the previous 37 games before collecting 219 in the last two games, including 124 against State for his first career 100-yard game.
Josh Downs, who had eight catches for 75 yards, broke the school single-season receiving yards record, passing Hakeem Nicks’ 2008 total.
Carolina single-season receiving-yards leaders
Josh Downs, 2021 — 1,273
Hakeem Nicks, 2008 — 1,222
Dwight Jones, 2011 — 1,196
Ryan Switzer, 2016 — 1,112
Dyami Brown, 2020 — 1,099
Carolina single-season reception leaders
Josh Downs, 2021 — 98
Ryan Switzer, 2016 — 96
Dwight Jones, 2011 — 85
Hakeem Nicks, 2007 — 74
ACC all-time single-season reception leaders
Jamison Crowder, Duke, 2013 — 108
Steve Ishmael, Syracuse, 2017 — 105
Sammy Watkins, Clemson, 2013 — 101
Rashad Greene, Florida State, 2014 — 99
Josh Downs, Carolina, 2021 — 98
Mike Williams, Clemson, 2016 — 98
Kenneth Moore, Wake Forest — 98
Carolina’s defense played solidly in the second half up until the last two minutes, getting back-to-back three-and-outs in the fourth quarter.
Carolina has a recent history of getting beat by running quarterbacks who make it tough to pressure them, and doing better against opposing QBs who aren’t that mobile.
After getting five sacks against Duke and four against Pittsburgh in the latter situation, the Tar Heels faced another QB not known for his running ability in Leary.
The Tar Heels got consistent pressure on Leary, sacking him six times and making it tough for the Pack to get much of a passing game going until the last two minutes.
Two negative plays led UNC to go three-and-out on the opening drive, and N.C. State’s Jordan Houston blocked Ben Kiernan’s punt. The Pack’s C.J. Riley recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown 1:23 into the game.
After Carolina could only gain 30 yards in their first three possessions, 23 of those on one Ty Chandler run, State went up 14–0. A seven-play, 64-yard drive without a third-down play ended on a Leary touchdown pass to Trent Pennix for nine yards.
Brooks broke through for a 40-yard run on the next play to ignite UNC’s first scoring drive. After a seven-play, 70-yard drive stalled near the goal line, Atkins kicked a 22-yard field goal in the first minute of the second quarter.
UNC finished the regular season being outscored 38–7 in the first quarter of ACC games.
Garrett Walston bailed out UNC after State blocked another Kiernan punt deep in UNC territory by grabbing the ball and running for a first down. They didn’t get another first down, but UNC’s defense finally forced N.C. State to go three-and-out.
Brooks ran 16 yards on a fourth-and-one at the Pack 40 after taking a direct snap. Howell’s arm was hit as he threw but still connected with Kamari Morales for a 20-yard pass play. Howell then ran four yards for the touchdown.
Considering how the first half went with UNC going 0 of 7 on first-half third-down chances, the Tar Heels were lucky to only trail 14–10 at halftime.
Gemmel knocked the ball out of the hands of Wolfpack receiver Ricky Person after he made a third-quarter catch. Cedric Gray recovered it to give the Tar Heels possession at the State 23. Five plays later, Howell ran 12 yards for his 11th rushing touchdown of the season and UNC led 17–14 with 9:05 left in the third quarter.
Howell connected with Justin Olson on a 17-yard touchdown pass, Olson’s first career TD, to push Carolina’s lead to 24–14 with 6:03 left in the third quarter.
State responded as Leary hit Thayer Thomas on a 26-yard touchdown pass, after UNC safety Cam’Ron Kelly overran the play, to trim UNC’s lead to 24–21 in the last minute of the third quarter.
A 35-yard Ty Chandler run was the catalyst on a 10-play, 67-yard fourth-quarter scoring drive that stalled near the goal line and ended with a 21-yard Atkins field goal. That pushed UNC’s lead to 27–21 with 7:44 left.
N.C. State 34, UNC 30
Photo via @UNCFootball