North Carolina had been practicing the play for about two years, coach Larry Fedora said, and when the Tar Heels most needed points on Friday in the final seconds against Stanford in the Sun Bowl, they turned to that play.
It was designed to give Mitch Trubisky, the junior quarterback, four options. By the time he realized the first one was covered, though, he was in retreat, back-tracking, scrambling, trying to keep himself upright, trying to keep hope alive.
And then he was down, sacked, and moments later the final seconds expired in the final game of the season. For the Tar Heels it ended with a 25-23 defeat, a loss that wasn’t decided until UNC’s two-point conversion attempt failed with 24 seconds remaining.
Just moments earlier the Tar Heels’ sideline was a place of jubilation, and hope. Just as he had during the final moments of a comeback victory against Pittsburgh earlier this season, Trubisky had engineered a long drive that gave his team a chance.
He threw a 2-yard touchdown pass – under pressure, on the move, scrambling, looking for open space – to Bug Howard, who made the catch not long after he dropped what would have been a touchdown.
Trubisky’s pass to Howard cut the Tar Heels’ deficit to two, and Fedora called the play his team had been working on for years, the one with the four options. Trubisky then lined up under center, which is something he rarely does, and as soon as the snap came the play appeared doomed.
Pressure came immediately. Trubisky attempted to retreat.
“We were trying to get the guy in the flat and it wasn’t there,” he said. “And then I just kept going through my progressions and then got tackled.”
It might have been his final college play. Trubisky, who completed 23 of his 39 attempts for 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, has been enveloped in the NFL draft hype machine. Some talking heads say he’d be a first-round pick, maybe the No. 1 pick overall.
He was in no mood to discuss such things in the aftermath on Friday, not after another game filled with lost opportunities and squandered chances that might well haunt the Tar Heels. UNC scored on its first drive and scored on its final drive.
In between, though, the Tar Heels often sputtered offensively. Trubisky often found himself under relentless pressure – so much of it, in fact, that Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas earned the Sun Bowl’s MVP honors for his role in his constant harassment of Trubisky and the UNC offense.
The significance of it is hopefully it will gnaw at our gut until we get back out on the field and early September.
“If you go back and look it seemed like every time there was a play, number 90 was making it,” Fedora said of Thomas, who finished with seven tackles, including a sack and another for a loss. “And I’m not sure we blocked him – I’m not sure that we ever blocked him. He seemed like he made just about every play there was, whether it was downfield or in the backfield.”
Thomas imposed his will, and the UNC offensive line was helpless to stop him – or the rest of the Cardinal’s defensive line. UNC’s woes on the offensive line hurt the Tar Heels during their loss against N.C. State at the end of the regular season, and they inhibited the offense from being at its best.
Caleb Peterson, one of the Tar Heels’ best lineman, watched from the sideline as he has since a season-ending injury in November. Another projected starter, John Ferranto, was lost before the season began.
“That’s all we’ve got,” Fedora said of the linemen who were healthy enough to play.
Upgrading the lines – both offensively and defensively – will be a priority for UNC in the offseason. Defensively, the Tar Heels played well enough to win – “extremely well,” Fedora said – but they still allowed Cardinal Bryce Love, the former Wake Forest High standout, to run for 119 yards.
Love, whom UNC heavily recruited, averaged nearly 6 yards per carry. The Tar Heels had no equivalent – Stanford held T.J. Logan to 72 yards on 19 carries – and UNC’s three turnovers, which came on Trubisky’s two interceptions and his fumble, forced it to scramble late.
The Tar Heels still nearly completed another memorable comeback. Instead it was a disappointing finish in a disappointing season, one that began, after the 11-win season last year, with such high hopes.
The Tar Heels lost their final three games against Power 5 conference opponents. They lost their third consecutive bowl game. And yet the mood was different from the defeat against Rutgers two years ago in Detroit.
After that game Ryan Switzer, then a sophomore, questioned his the program’s chemistry and direction. The loss on Friday stung but it wasn’t because of “effort and attitude, like it used to be,” Switzer said.
“It’s been night and day since my sophomore year,” said Switzer, who became UNC’s all-time leader in career receiving yards and single-season receiving yards. “I think all those guys can attest to that.
“As long as this man is here and these coaches are here, this program is going to go in the right direction and they’re going to continue to recruit guys with great character and great ability.”
Still, the Tar Heels were left wanting more, searching for what lessons they could apply.
“The significance of it,” Fedora said, “is hopefully it will gnaw at our gut until we get back out on the field and early September.”