North Carolina during the past two seasons has won some of the most memorable games in school history with some of the most memorable comebacks – odds-defying rallies that, at times, helped the Tar Heels rise to national prominence.
There was the comeback from a 21-point deficit at Georgia Tech last season, and the last-second victories earlier this year against Pittsburgh and at Florida State. And then there was another comeback – almost – in the Sun Bowl against Stanford on Friday.
The Tar Heels in the final seconds scored a touchdown that gave them a chance to tie the Cardinal with a two-point conversion. But on the conversion, quarterback Mitch Trubisky never had a chance, scrambling backward while his offensive line collapsed.
He was sacked before he had a chance to set his feet and attempt a throw. And so it ended, the Tar Heels’ 25-23 defeat that was representative of the missed opportunities and squandered chances that doomed UNC’s season after it began with such grand hopes.
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Why UNC lost
Turnovers and missed opportunities on offense were the primary culprits. UNC made it look somewhat easy on its first drive, which ended with Trubisky’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Switzer, who with that reception became UNC’s all-time leader in receiving yardage.
After gaining 71 yards on 10 plays during that opening drive, though, the Tar Heels gained only 55 yards the rest half. Two of their drives ended with turnovers that led to a Stanford field goal.
The most costly turnover came early in the fourth quarter: The Trubisky interception. Dallas Lloyd, the Stanford safety, returned it 19 yards for a touchdown.
The Tar Heels finished with 398 yards – 97 of those coming on their final drive – and averaged a modest 5.2 yards per play.
What it means
This wasn’t the postseason destination UNC envisioned back in early August, and this was hardly the ending the Tar Heels planned when they were 7-2 (and 5-1 in the ACC) after a victory against Georgia Tech on Nov. 5.
The Tar Heels lost their final three games against Power 5 conference opponents. More important, they lost in the final game for several seniors who played a vital role in the program’s reemergence the past two seasons.
Receivers Switzer and Bug Howard, running back T.J. Logan and several others played for the final time at UNC. It was also likely the final game for Trubisky, who completed 23 of his 39 attempts for 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
After taking a 17-16 lead late in the third quarter, the Tar Heels forced Stanford to punt and took over on their own 13-yard line early in the fourth quarter. UNC then had all the momentum. It quickly evaporated, though, when Trubisky threw a pass right to Lloyd.
He returned it 19 yards for a touchdown that gave the Cardinal a 22-17 lead. Lloyd’s interception, his second, changed the game in an instant and forced UNC into a do-or-die scenario in the final minutes.
Lloyd turned in a monster performance in his final college game. In the second quarter, he intercepted his first pass and returned it 44 yards to the UNC 20-yard line. The Cardinal failed to capitalize on the turnover, though, when it missed a field goal.
His interception return early in the fourth quarter altered the trajectory of the game, negated any momentum UNC had built and gave Stanford its lead back. Lloyd was also credited with a forced fumble in the second quarter.
A disappointing ending to what will be remembered as a disappointing season for the Tar Heels. With victories against Duke and N.C. State, UNC would have won the Coastal Division and played for the second consecutive year in the ACC championship. As it was, the Tar Heels were left to travel to El Paso for the Sun Bowl, where they couldn’t overcome numerous breakdowns.