While the final seconds passed by on Friday, Ryan Switzer sat on the North Carolina bench, surrounded by a couple of teammates who came over and put their arms around him, embraced him. He was among the last players on the Tar Heels sideline when the reality of their 28-21 defeat against N.C. State started to set in.
Switzer and 15 other UNC seniors hoped to end the day with a celebration – with a senior day victory against a rival, one that would have kept alive the Tar Heels’ slim hopes of playing for an ACC championship. Instead those seniors were left to wonder how it all went so wrong, how their final game at Kenan Stadium could turn out like this.
When it ended, Switzer walked slowly toward the middle of the field. A couple of N.C. State players came by with some kind words. Mostly Switzer, one of UNC’s bright spots on a day when little went according to the Tar Heels’ plan, was alone. After the band played the alma mater, as is the tradition at home games, players disappeared into a tunnel. Bug Howard, another senior, wore a towel over his head.
Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, tried to encourage his players. There wasn’t much anyone could say.
“I didn’t really say anything,” Nazair Jones, a junior defensive tackle who is among the Tar Heels’ most vocal leaders, said afterward. “I was too busy crying.”
Earlier this month, after a 28-point victory against Georgia Tech, UNC (8-4, 5-3 ACC) appeared headed toward a strong finish. The Tar Heels then still had a chance of winning the Coastal Division, and it appeared likely they’d finish the season with at least 10 victories – which would have given UNC consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins for only the third time in school history.
But I hate it for them. Because I hate them to have this feeling for the rest of their life. But that’s just the way life is.
UNC coach Larry Fedora
And then came an ugly 28-27 loss at Duke, which stymied UNC in the second half. And an uglier loss on Friday against N.C. State (6-6, 3-5), which controlled the first half and built a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter before the Tar Heels improved, adjusted and gave themselves a chance in the fourth quarter. By the time UNC had figured it out, though, it was too late.
Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, said he couldn’t explain the slow start. He spoke often afterward of his team’s inability to “make enough of the ordinary plays that we usually make to win a football game.” And yet in a critical moment, with the Tar Heels attempting to start a comeback in the third quarter, they decided to do something out of the ordinary.
With about five minutes remaining in the third quarter, UNC faced a third-and-inches on the N.C. State 8-yard line. After a timeout, T.J. Logan, a senior running back, lined up at quarterback, received the snap and ran for a loss of a yard. The Tar Heels went for it on fourth down, and again tried something different: a reverse wide receiver pass that Switzer threw high, and incomplete.
It was a sequence that’s likely to remembered and criticized. Needing only inches on the third down, and then two yards on fourth down, UNC went with some trickery while Elijah Hood, a bruising runner known to excel in short yardage situations, watched.
“I don’t really care what everybody thinks out there about the calls,” Fedora said. “We called what we worked. We do it every week, and when it works, everybody loves it. And when they don’t, they can criticize it. That’s just the way the world works.”
At the time, the Wolfpack led 28-7. They didn’t score again, but the Tar Heels, who did finally muster some offense in the fourth quarter, ran out of chances. It wasn’t the ending that hurt UNC, which began its final drive on its own 18-yard line with about seven minutes to play, as much as the beginning. And that final drive ended, for the Tar Heels, the way it began: with mistakes and an inability to make a critical play.
There was a holding call that negated quarterack Mitch Trubisky’s 10-yard run. Then an overthrown pass on a fourth down that gave N.C. State possession with about three minutes remaining.
“And then I kind of had a feeling just in the pit of my stomach that that was it,” said Switzer, who caught 13 passes for 171 yards, four of those on a second-quarter touchdown that gave UNC its first points.
What Switzer felt in his gut was right: UNC’s final chance had come and gone. There was nothing left to do than to cope with it, face it, after the Tar Heels’ divisional hopes ended, along with the chance at a 10-win season.
Fedora afterward defended the legacy of his seniors. They had, he said, “changed the culture here.”
“But I hate it for them,” he said, “because I hate them to have this feeling for the rest of their life. But that’s just the way life is.”
Switzer, emotional in the aftermath, fought off tears. He’d expected better in his final home game. He hadn’t taken N.C. State lightly, and said the Wolfpack should have defeated Clemson, should have defeated Florida State. N.C. State let those victories slip away, but not this one.
“So I don’t know if surprised is the right word,” Switzer said. “Just hurt.”