The North Carolina football players stood on the benches and darted across the sideline, flapping their arms down to signal for silence.
When sophomore defensive tackle Aaron Crawford scooped up a Miami fumble with three minutes to play in UNC’s 24-19 loss to the Hurricanes (7-0), the Tar Heels (1-8) were invigorated. After scoring a touchdown on the previous drive, they now had a chance at claiming their first home win of the season.
“Excitement, just knowing that this was a ball game,” sophomore wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams said. “These are the games that you live for when you’re playing against the No. 8 team in the country.”
The moment wouldn’t last. After a personal foul by Miami gave UNC a first down, the handoff went to sophomore running back Jordon Brown, whom sophomore quarterback Nathan Elliott called “Touchdown Brown.” Brown had excelled throughout the game, finishing with 88 rushing yards and 51 receiving yards, including Elliott’s longest completion of the game, a 28-yard screen play, and the longest run of Brown’s career, a 56-yard rush.
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But on that last carry of the game, the ball was stripped from Brown’s hands, and Miami recovered the fumble. The Tar Heels’ hopes of a comeback vanished with their fourth turnover — the most UNC has forfeited all season.
“If we don’t turn the ball over, we probably would’ve won that game,” said Elliott, who threw three interceptions in the second half.
Elliott came into the game after redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt was injured in the first quarter. Fedora said Surratt could have returned later in the game, but Elliott was playing with a spark. After a series of games with slow starts, the offense connected.
Behind Elliott, North Carolina bested Miami in total offense yards, possession time and first downs. It was the first time this season UNC totaled more yardage than its opponent and still lost.
But with two minutes left in the third quarter, Elliott faced a blitz. He hurled the ball to Ratliff-Williams in an attempt to escape the Miami defense, but junior defensive back Michael Jackson intercepted it. On the first play of the next drive, his pass was picked off again. He ended the game with three interceptions.
“There was a lot of really good things overshadowed by the things we didn’t do, and that’s the gut wrenching stuff right now,” head coach Larry Fedora said.
North Carolina has struggled to contain turnovers this season, totaling 14 interceptions and six fumbles. The Tar Heels gave up three turnovers in defeats against Cal, Notre Dame, Virginia and Virginia Tech. And with the turnovers, UNC has allowed opponents 41 points.
Ratliff-Williams said going forward, the offense needs to understand the cost of those small errors — and how they heighten the defensive burden. Turning a close loss like Saturday’s into a win comes down to details.
Still, with trick plays, defensive stops and a solid run game, the Tar Heels came one flaw away from achieving a victory. Even with the mistakes, North Carolina maintained a sliver of hope — until that last fumble found its way into Miami’s hands. Their effort was negated by one-too-many split-second mistakes.
“You don’t give yourself a chance when you turn the ball over four times,” Fedora said. “Doesn’t matter who you play... And that’s what’s amazing is we turned it over three times and we’re still in that game and have a chance to win it. And we turned it over a fourth, and it was pretty much the dagger.”