CHAPEL HILL — At the end of a confounding loss, the greatest question that surrounded North Carolina focused on its most confounding play: With three timeouts and with less than six minutes to play, how could the Tar Heels, inches from a first down, take a costly delay of game penalty?
UNC allowed Miami to drive 90 yards to score the game-winning touchdown that gave the 10th-ranked Hurricanes a 27-23 victory Thursday night. The Tar Heels faltered in the red zone and scored a touchdown on just one of their five trips inside Miamis 20-yard line.
Amid all that went wrong, though, the delay of game penalty might have stood above the rest. Before it, UNC led 23-20 and it was preparing for a third-and-inches play from its 49-yard line. Had the Tar Heels converted it, they likely could have burned at least another minute or two off the game clock.
Instead, the penalty moved UNC back 5 yards. Now it was third-and-5. And then it was third-and-10 after Jon Heck, the freshman right tackle, committed a false start penalty. In the span of two whistles, UNC lost 10 yards without taking a snap.
On the third-and-10 play, Miami sacked Bryn Renner, and the Tar Heels punted, setting up the Hurricanes final drive. Had UNC called a timeout on third-and-inches, perhaps the game would have ended differently. The Tar Heels were left to wonder, again, what if?
Larry Fedora, UNCs second-year coach, had difficulty explaining the delay penalty.
I was hoping to pick up a first down, he said. We substituted, and (the officials) felt like they needed to stand over the ball (and) we couldnt snap it. So Im not sure I still understand that yet. Ill have to get an interpretation there. Thats my fault.
UNC made substitutions on the play, and Fedora said the officials told him that because of those substitutions, Miami needed to be allowed three seconds to make its substitutions.
I thought there was a lot more than three seconds on the (play) clock when we substituted, he said. Maybe there werent. I dont know. I thought there was well over that.
Either way, UNC had three timeouts left. There were less than six minutes left. It needed just inches. The Tar Heels finished the game with 500 yards of offense, but they didnt have an opportunity to get the one yard they needed most.
A screenshot that began circulating on the Internet early Friday morning shows one official standing over the ball with one second left on the play clock before the delay of game penalty. The screenshot, taken from the ESPN broadcast, verifies Fedoras explanation that an official was standing over the ball.
Whats more difficult to explain, though, is why UNC simply didnt call a timeout. That curious decision or non-decision, as it turned out will take its place alongside others in a season of strange moments for UNC.
Against Middle Tennessee State last month, the Tar Heels incorrectly managed the coin toss, and the mistake forced UNC to kick off to start both halves. During the defeat against ECU a few weeks later, the Tar Heels ran one play with nine defensive players.
Now, the questionable clock management will endure from the loss against Miami. Amid that mistake and others, there were positives for UNC.
The offense found its rhythm and moved successfully against a defense that, statistically, had been among the best in the nation. UNCs defense held Miamis offense out of the end zone until the fourth quarter, when UNC surrendered two long touchdown drives. And Eric Ebron finished with 199 yards receiving a single-game school record for a tight end.
Still, the Tar Heels endured a familiar result a loss that was their fourth consecutive. And they were left to wonder, again, what might have been. In previous weeks, they could have questioned if the result would have different if touchdowns had stood, instead of been called back because of penalties.
On Thursday night, UNC was left to wonder whether a well-timed timeout could have made a difference.
Theyre a top-10 team in the nation, UNC defensive end Kareem Martin said afterward. And you take away a couple of plays, and we beat them.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter