By the time some North Carolina players walked off the field and back into their locker room at Bank of America Stadium following their 45-37 defeat against Clemson on Saturday night in the ACC Championship game, they had messages waiting for them on their phones.
And some of those messages contained pictures that those players might never forget – ones that suggested that the Tar Heels should have had possession of the ball, and hope, after recovering an onside kick with a little more than one minute remaining.
UNC executed the play the way it wanted. After Marquise Williams, the fifth-year senior quarterback, threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Switzer with one minute, 13 seconds to play, the Tar Heels lined up for the onside kick.
Freeman Jones, the UNC kicker, hit it just right and the ball took a big bounce and ricocheted off a Clemson player. The Tar Heels recovered and began to celebrate. They needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion and it appeared they’d have a chance.
But there was a flag. An offside penalty.
“We did everything we were supposed to do on that play,” Switzer, the junior receiver, said later. “Executed it correctly and recovered the ball. I heard the referee say he could have picked three guys that were offsides.”
And Switzer believed it, too, at first. He thought one of his teammates had crossed the plane of the 35-yard line before Jones’ kick. Then, after Clemson recovered a second onside kick following the negation of the first one, the Tigers melted away the clock and the game ended.
Switzer went back to the locker room and found messages waiting for him on his phone. The ones with the pictures suggesting that No. 10 UNC hadn’t been offside at all, and that the play should have stood: UNC ball near midfield with three timeouts and more than one minute remaining.
“The receivers back home watching the game put it in the receivers’ group text, so we saw it immediately,” Switzer said. “And obviously, it makes you sick.”
The offside call “didn’t lose us the game,” Switzer said. But it didn’t help the Tar Heels, either.
And that was the prevailing thought afterward: that the Tar Heels, who were playing catch-up throughout the second half, who were outplayed, nonetheless should have had one last chance that they’d created, and then had taken away.
Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, didn’t hesitate when asked about the offside penalty. He’d seen a replay of the play, too, before he met with a roomful of reporters.
“I had a chance to look at it, and they missed it,” said Fedora, who in the moments after the call appeared angry and animated while speaking with the officials. “They were wrong. That’s all I’m going to say about it. They were wrong.”
Fedora did say more, though. About an opportunity lost. About the haunting thought of “what if?”
“I don’t know if we would have gone down and scored,” he said, “but it was like a minute and eight seconds on the clock and we should have had the ball at midfield, and the way we had moved it the last couple series I would have felt pretty good about that.”
But then there was this, the reality:
“It isn’t going to change,” Fedora said. “It doesn’t matter one way or the other, so I’m going to have to swallow it like a man and just take it, and that’s just the way it is.”
The Tar Heels, who had been seeking their first ACC football championship since 1980, lost primarily because of their inability to stop Clemson’s offense, which generated 608 yards, and because the Tigers simply seemed to wear down UNC, in part because of two touchdown drives that spanned more than 95 yards – one in the second quarter and one in the third.
The Tar Heels lost because they faltered offensively like they rarely had this season through the first three quarters, and because Clemson’s defense often kept UNC guessing with an array of different blitzes and formations. Elijah Hood, the sophomore running back, said the Tigers “threw the kitchen sink at us, in terms of blitzing.”
“That made it kind of difficult for me sometimes,” Hood said. “Trying to figure out what they did on that play and how they got by me and I had to go back and re-look at the drawing board and get it fixed up. It was quite the chess match with the blitz schemes today.”
A chess match that Clemson, ranked No. 1 nationally, usually won. The Tigers twice led by 19 points – once after Deshaun Watson’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Artavis Scott with about five minutes to play in the third quarter, and again after Watson’s 2-yard touchdown run with about 11½ minutes to play.
The Tigers were clearly the better team on Saturday night. That wasn’t up for debate after Watson, the game’s MVP, threw for 289 yards, ran for 131 more and accounted for five touchdowns. Clemson, which had been on this kind of stage before, was the better team, the more poised team.
Yet still, Fedora found himself afterward talking about his team’s grit – a common theme this season, UNC’s best in 18 years. UNC scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the last of which cut Clemson’s lead to eight points with 73 seconds remaining. The Tar Heels entered Saturday night with hope that victory might lead to a spot in the College Football Playoff.
In the final two minutes, at least, UNC still had hope of victory – of one more improbable comeback.
“We had a chance to win against the No. 1 team in the country with a minute left,” Switzer said.
Then came a moment that the Tar Heels and their supporters are likely to remember for a long time. They will remember it more than the season-high 608 yards UNC allowed, and more than the season-low 382 yards the Tar Heels gained.
The onside kick recovery that wasn’t will be remembered more than Williams’ struggles. He completed 11 of his 33 attempts and often appeared helpless amid the Tigers’ tenacious pass rush. And it will be remembered more than a number of moments that led to UNC’s first defeat since early September, one that came after 11 consecutive victories – most in a single season in school history.
What will be remembered, on the UNC side, is that the Tar Heels had momentum and, it seemed, possession when they recovered an onside kick with a little more than one minute remaining. But then all of that – the momentum, the possession – was gone.
Afterward the ACC stood by the offside call. A league spokesperson said that an offside penalty on a kickoff “is not a reviewable play.”
“The rule is as it relates to an onside kick that the 35-yard line is treated as a plane and if any part of a player breaks that plane before the ball is kicked it’s offsides,” the spokesperson said. “The officials saw a member of the kicking team break the plane before the ball was kicked.”
Fedora and his players, when they saw replays of it, saw something else. They saw a well-executed play that they believe should have stood.
“When you watch the replay,” Switzer said, “it’s pretty obvious. So I’m not exactly sure what he saw.”