R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The anticipated wait for the return of promising true-freshman quarterback Cade Fortin’s finally ended Saturday.
The wait for one of his receivers to catch an open-field pass didn’t end until the second half.
Once that happened, on a 37-yard touchdown pass to Beau Corrales, North Carolina’s offense started to click.
But it didn’t click enough late when the Tar Heels had a chance to put the game away as they blew a seven-point fourth-quarter lead.
UNC’s season ended just like many other games in the 2-9 season — with frustration, as N.C. State pulled out a 34–28 overtime victory at Kenan Stadium.
“I thought he threw the ball around well,” Coach Larry Fedora said.
“He took care of the ball. He took some hits out there today and, for the most part, put the ball where it should go.”
In a season where Fedora struggled to find a productive quarterback, he ended up only really using Fortin extensively in high-leverage situations twice.
When Fedora was asked if he regretted not going to Fortin or starting him sooner, he said no.
Wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who caught two passes for 76 yards but also dropped a couple, said Fortin showed confidence in leading UNC.
“He’s no longer a freshman after the reps he gets and the experience he has now,” Ratliff-Williams said.
“He has that under his belt now in order to gain that confidence going into next season. Rather than not being so confident, he is the guy that’s ahead, has that confidence and he can build on that and his repertoire is going to be stacked.”
Fortin wasn’t perfect.
But he showed off the strong arm that has been lacking with Nathan Elliott at quarterback.
UNC saw that in the loss to Virginia Tech before he injured his right knee.
It wasn’t the first time he’d dealt with a frustrating injury.
He broke a fibula and an ankle in the second game last season, his senior season at North Gwinnett High School in Georgia, and didn’t play again until mop-up duty in UNC’s loss at East Carolina.
He overcame a half-dozen dropped passes during a rainy first half when he was 7 of 21 for 61 yards and an interception (on a tipped pass that should have been caught) to go 12 of 19 for 215 yards, a touchdown pass and a touchdown run in the second half.
“That second half, we had a little juice,” said Fortin, who finished the game 19 of 40 for 276 yards.
“The coaches and players got us all hyped up. So, we were just ready to go in the second half.”
He wouldn’t say it, but the big difference is that his receivers were finally catching balls.
He showed confidence and zip to his balls, although he overthrew a few passes.
“I think I did settle in,” Fortin said.
“At first, I was a little nervous, obviously. But once I settled in, I was a lot more comfortable and my guys were giving me all the opportunities that I had. I just had to connect on some plays.”
One last drop, off the fingertips of Dyami Brown in the fourth quarter, was the start of the Tar Heels’ fortunes fading in the game.
With a seven-point lead, a catch there would have extended UNC’s drive.
Instead, it had to punt and N.C. State came back with a game-tying drive.
Wolfpack running back Reggie Gallaspy tied it with a touchdown run with 1:03 left in regulation, then won it in overtime with his fifth score of the game.
If not for coming in to throw a failed Hail Mary pass at the end of the Duke game, Fortin could have probably got valuable playing time against Western Carolina.
But since he already had played three games, he could only play one more and keep his redshirt.
“Me and Coach kind of talked about that but it was brief,” Fortin said.
“It wasn’t super-long or drawn out or anything like that.”
Asked if he could have played against WCU, he said there “was no need” and said the redshirt wasn’t a real issue with him.
At the beginning of their freshman season, roommates Fortin and Javonte Williams probably didn’t expect to be counted on so heavily against the Wolfpack.
But after Michael Carter and Antonio Williams tried but couldn’t be effective because of injuries, it fell to Williams, who ran for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Williams said that having Fortin in the game made it easier to run the ball.
“It’s big having Cade,” he said.
“Cade, he’s just a competitor. He wants to win like everybody else. But there’s something about him. He’s got an extra gear that he can go to that other players can’t.”
Williams said that because he bumped Fortin’s knee in practice earlier this season, Fortin had been doing extra exercises on those muscles in his right leg.
“He told me, ‘I’m glad you hit my knee at that practice because if I hadn’t been strengthening and doing what I did, it probably could have been worse,’ “ Williams said of a conversation with Fortin about the injury against the Hokies.
Fortin was one of many injured Tar Heels, and it caused plenty of frustration for Fortin to get hurt right when he was getting his chance to play.
“That was a big challenge for me, mentally and physically,” Fortin said.
“That was probably the biggest adversity that I had this season. Something that will make me stronger and make me better for next season.”
He wasn’t focusing on the negative, though.
“You know, God has perfect timing, and I just think it worked out perfectly — me coming in for this last game. I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity,” Fortin said.
“I definitely think my first experience as a Tar Heel was a great one,” Fortin said.
“All glory to God. Got the opportunity to play as a true freshman. That doesn’t happen very often. Definitely with the new redshirt rule, that was awesome, I got to get my feet wet a little bit. This is just something I’ll build off into next year.”
He’ll be the favorite to take the starting quarterback job in spring practice.
The question will be whether it will be Fedora making that decision.
Triangle Sports Network: 401-323-8960, @TSportsNet