By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Could it be that the fourth-quarter magic that produced victories in North Carolina’s first two games — when both could easily have been losses — masked how small the margin for error is for this Tar Heels team?
The giddiness of Carolina fans after those wins over South Carolina and Miami has given way to what most thought before the season: With the talent level and depth issues on this team, they would do well to earn a bowl berth this season.
Appalachian State (3–0) delivered the latest dose of reality, scoring 20 consecutive first-half points and never trailing afterward to hold on for a 34–31 victory Saturday over North Carolina.
It was the Mountaineers’ first victory over a Power Five team since a 34–32 victory at Michigan in 2007, ending a 12-game losing streak in such games.
A 56–yard field-goal attempt by UNC kicker Nathan Ruggles that would have tied the game was blocked by the Mountaineers’ Akeem Davis-Gaither as time expired.
“The harder things get, the more animated you’ve got to be to find a way to pull together instead of split apart,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “You know there’s some scars that we’ve got to overcome.”
It’s the ninth consecutive loss for UNC (2–2) against in-state FBS teams since defeating Duke and N.C. State in 2015. UNC also lost at Wake Forest last weekend, meaning that the streak includes five schools.
This much is certain: It seems like every game in the Mack Brown 2.0 era comes down the last couple of plays. Every game has been decided by five points or fewer. Just don’t expect that to continue next week when No. 1 Clemson visits Kenan Stadium. UNC has outscored opponents 45-9 in the fourth quarter this season, but not enough of those points came in the last two weeks.
“We’re probably lucky that we’re playing the best team in the country because that’ll pick our kids up. And they’ll know the challenge,” Brown said.
Other than the first 11 seconds of the first half and the last three minutes, the first half was one to forget for the Tar Heels. UNC quickly took the lead after Michael Carter returned the opening kickoff 61 yards, then Sam Howell hit Dazz Newsome on a 21-yard touchdown pass. Howell hit Carter on an 11-yard scoring strike with one second left in the first half to cap a 75-yard drive
In between, the Tar Heels offense sputtered and the Mountaineers turned two of Howell’s turnovers (a fumble and an interception) into two of their three first-half touchdowns.
UNC made it a game with a 12-yard Howell-to-Carl Tucker scoring strike in the third quarter and a 2-yard TD run by Howell in the fourth quarter, his first career touchdown run.
BOX SCORE (NCAA.COM)
Tenuous tackling, spotty pass coverage trip up Tar Heels’ defense
Too many times on Saturday, UNC should have stopped Appalachian State for either a loss or only a short gain. Often, broken tackles left Carolina giving up another first down, with a big play resulting many times.
When the Tar Heels had to get a stop in the fourth quarter, ASU running back Darrynton Evans squeezed through a couple of potential blockers and ran for 18 yards and a first down, allowing the Mountaineers to burn some more of the clock on a drive that took 4 minutes and 44 seconds.
ASU’s Zac Thomas is the best running quarterback that UNC has faced this season, and he made UNC pay by running for nearly as many yards in the first half (58) as the entire UNC team (63).
“He’s really good,” Brown said. “He’s quick. The 48-yard run was a killer start of the second. And we don’t contain, so it goes back to one of those things we’re talking about That’s a coaching mistake. We’ve got to teach our guys to contain him and we should have tackled him in the backfield.”
The killing blow, though came with Thomas’ 12-yard run on a third-and-five with less than three minutes left.
He also carved up UNC’s secondary at times, connecting on pass plays of 31 and 43 yards in the second half to produce a touchdown just after the Mountaineers’ lead had been trimmed to three.
Passing game out of sync much of the day
Although Sam Howell completed 27 of 41 pass attempts for a season-high 323 yards and a season-high three touchdowns, he had a hard time finding his rhythm against Appalachian. He threw the first two interceptions of his career, was sacked three times and dealt with his share of dropped passes.
Toe Groves dropped two passes he should have caught. Dazz Newsome dropped another.
Howell, again, put things together in the fourth quarter, connecting on 9 of 13 passes for 113 yards and no interceptions. But with little time left and no time outs available during the final drive, he faced a difficult challenge.
“Sam doesn’t change much emotionally,” Brown said. “He played so good in the second half. He had one bad throw. I think he just keeps playing. Obviously, it bothers him because he understands that these things are things that get you beat. But it didn’t keep him from coming back and giving his team a chance to win.”
Heels can’t catch a break with all the injury challenges
Already without senior center Nick Polino, senior left tackle Charlie Heck missed the game with an upper-body injury, leaving UNC with an offensive line made up completely with underclassmen. Redshirt freshman Joshua Ezeudu started in place of Heck.
“It’s a problem, but it’s an excuse,” Brown said. “I mean, they’re on scholarship. So, you know, we got to play with what we’ve got.”
Missing for a second consecutive game was sophomore wide receiver Antoine Green.
The only good news on the injury front for the Tar Heels was the return of senior defensive tackle Jason Strowbridge, senior tight end Carl Tucker and sophomore right tackle Jordan Tucker, who all missed the loss at Wake Forest. But Strowbridge sat out much of the second half, as did junior safety Myles Wolfolk (who got his third interception of the season), presumably because of injuries.
The impact of the absence of Patrice Rene, who is out for the season, was still felt in the secondary. Then, with 5:06 left in the second quarter, sophomore inside linebacker Jeremiah Gemmell was ejected for targeting.
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