CHAPEL HILL After another loss, this one the most difficult of a season that’s growing full of them, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora spoke of belief, again, just like he has throughout a season that’s growing more disappointing by the game.
For more than 30 minutes, Fedora attempted to console the Tar Heels after their 27-23 defeat against Miami here on Thursday night, when the Hurricanes won after a 13-play, 90-yard drive that ended with Dallas Crawford’s 3-yard touchdown run with 16 seconds to play.
When Fedora finally walked into the interview room to greet reporters, he looked weary and tired. He stared straight ahead, and when he stood behind the microphone the first thing he said was, “We’ve got a bunch of guys hurting in that locker room downstairs.”
The Tar Heels were close to what would have been their signature victory in Fedora’s brief season-and-a-half tenure. Miami (6-0, 2-0) arrived at Kenan Stadium with a No. 10 national ranking, and for three quarters, at least, UNC (1-5, 0-3) was the better team.
The Tar Heels needed just one final fourth quarter defensive stop. Clinging to a 23-20 lead, they had already produced two of them. Then, after Tommy Hibbard’s 54-yard punt with about four minutes to play, UNC needed only to stop the Hurricanes somewhere between their own 10-yard line and the UNC end zone.
Instead, Miami methodically drove down the field. UNC’s defense forced a season-high four turnovers, and for three quarters made more game-changing plays than the ones they surrendered. Then came that last drive.
“I really thought we’d stop them,” Fedora said. “I really did.”
Instead, Crawford ran for six yards on Miami’s first play of the decisive drive, and then he ran for six yards again. The Hurricanes gained a combined 27 yards on their next two plays, and now all of a sudden they had it near midfield with about two minutes to play. From there, the siege continued. Miami encountered just two third downs on its final drive, and it didn’t need more than two yards on either of them.
Crawford’s game-winning run came on a 3rd-and-goal from the UNC 3-yard line, and when he crossed the goal line most people inside Kenan Stadium – the vast majority dressed in black for a game UNC dubbed “Zero Dark Thursday” – sat in stunned silence.
The Tar Heels had one final chance, and started their last drive with 16 seconds to play. They reached the Miami 28, but from there Bryn Renner’s heave fell incomplete in the end zone, and the Tar Heels walked off the field, somberly, with a defeat that dealt UNC an emotional blow.
“I just told them that, obviously, I was proud of the way that they played, and if they continue to believe and continue to work hard, that good things will happen eventually,” Fedora said. “I don’t know when, but we’ll make the breaks eventually.”
Renner, who rotated at quarterback with Marquise Williams, described the loss as “deflating.”
“We poured our hearts and souls into this game,” he said.
Once again, UNC was left to wonder what-if. What if it had capitalized when it moved inside the Miami 20-yard line, instead of settling for field goals? The Tar Heels moved inside the Hurricanes’ 20-yard line five times, and came away with just one touchdown. Instead, UNC settled for three short Thomas Moore field goals.
And what if, on its second-to-last drive, UNC had figured out a way to convert a 3rd-and-1 from near midfield? After a Williams run up the middle, UNC made substitutions and an official stood over the ball while the play clock ran down.
“They felt like they needed to stand over the ball until we couldn’t snap it,” Fedora said. “So I’m not sure I still understand that yet. I’ll have to get an interpretation there. … That’s my fault.”
Miami played most of the game without its leading rusher, Duke Johnson, and one of its leading receivers, Phillip Dorsett. Both left with injuries in the first half. It didn’t matter much, though. The Hurricanes still generated 556 yards – 90 of which came in the final minutes, with the game, and perhaps UNC’s season, at stake.
The Tar Heels were close. A late stop, an extra touchdown in the red zone, and the result could have been different - and likely would have been. Instead, though, the Tar Heels were left, again, to try to keep believing and hoping their misery will end.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter