At the end of a confounding loss, the greatest question that surrounded North Carolina focused on its most confounding play: With three timeouts and with less than six minutes to play, how could the Tar Heels, inches away from a first down, take a costly delay of game penalty?
UNC allowed Miami to drive 90 yards to score the game-winning touchdown that gave the Hurricanes a 27-23 victory on Thursday night. The Tar Heels faltered in the red zone, and scored a touchdown on just one of their five trips inside Miami’s 20-yard line.
Amid all that went wrong, though, the delay of game penalty might have stood above the rest. Before it, UNC was preparing for a 3rd-and-inches play from its own 49-yard line. The Tar Heels needed less than a yard for a first down. Had they converted it, they likely could have burned at least another minute or two off the game clock.
Instead, the penalty moved UNC back five yards. Instead of a 3rd-and-inches, it was now a 3rd-and-5. And then it was 3rd-and-10, after Jon Heck, the freshman right tackle, committed a false start penalty. In the span of two whistles, UNC lost 10 yards without even taking a snap.
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On the 3rd-and-10 play, Miami sacked UNC quarterback Bryn Renner and the Tar Heels punted, setting up the Hurricanes’ final drive. Had UNC called a timeout on 3rd-and-inches, maybe the game ends differently. Instead, the Tar Heels were left to wonder, again, what-if?
Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, afterward explained the delay penalty like this:
“I was hoping to pick up a first down,” he said. “And it was third and about one yard or less than a yard. We substituted and (the officials) felt like they needed to stand over the ball until we couldn’t snap it. So I’m not sure I still understand that yet. I’ll have to get an interpretation there. That’s my fault.”
UNC made substitutions on the play, and Fedora said the officials told him that because of that substitution, Miami needed to be allowed three seconds to make its own substitutions.
“I thought there was a lot more than three seconds on the clock when we substituted,” he said. “Maybe there weren’t. I don’t know. I thought there was well over that.”
Either way, UNC had three timeouts left. There were less than six minutes left. It needed just inches. A quarterback sneak likely would have gotten the job done. The Tar Heels finished the game with 500 yards of offense, but they didn’t have an opportunity to get the one yard they needed most.
A screenshot that began circulating early Friday morning shows one of the officials standing over the ball with one second left on the play clock before the delay of game call. InsideCarolina.com posted the picture on its Twitter account, and the screenshot verifies Fedora’s explanation that an official was standing over the ball.
Even so, it doesn’t explain why UNC simply didn’t just call a timeout.