RALEIGH, NC — There have been many disappointing losses in North Carolina’s 133-year football history. The 66-0 loss to Virginia in 1912, which is the biggest margin of defeat on the books. The 41-7 thrashing by Oklahoma in 1980 when the Tar Heels were ranked No. 6 nationally and in contention for the national title. The 28-3 loss at home to Furman in 1999. The 28-27 loss at Duke in 2016 that killed hopes of a return visit to the ACC Championship Game.
For most Carolina fans, however, there is one loss that stands above the rest: the 20-17 loss to Virginia in 1996. The sixth-ranked Tar Heels, who were on course for a Bowl berth Alliance, led 17-3 in the fourth quarter and had the ball inside the Cavaliers 10-yard line when Chris Keldorf’s pass was intercepted and returned 96 yards for a touchdown by Antawn Harris. This play reversed the momentum and Virginia rallied for the upset victory, burning the agony of defeat in the hearts of the Tar Heel faithful.
The game that had no equal for so many fans may have been usurped Friday night at Carter-Finley Stadium, 25 years and 10 days later. It may take time for the significance of the 34-30 loss to NC State to register, although UNC’s collapse was as dramatic as it was swift. If there was a sense of doom in the final 10 minutes at Scott Stadium, there was a shocking suddenness surrounding the collapse in Raleigh.
Grayson Atkins’ 50-yard field goal that barely grazed the crossbar gave UNC a 30-21 lead with 2:12 remaining and the Tar Heel sideline burst with emotion, celebrating a victory that would ultimately never come. Perhaps Carolina lost its temper at that point, unable to regain the discipline and focus that had fueled its 30-7 charge over the previous three quarters.
College football teams that led by nine points or more with less than 2:30 to play this season were 451-0 going into Friday night, according to ESPN. After Ray Vohasek sacked Devin Leary for an eight-yard loss on NC State’s first play of his penultimate practice with two minutes left, UNC’s probability of winning rose to 99.9%. Then everything went wrong.
Interrupted coverage in the secondary allowed Leary to find a wide-open Emeka Emezie sprinting down the left sideline for a 64-yard touchdown pass play. The UNC hands team misplayed the ensuing infield kick, allowing the kicker to recover the ball at the 46-yard line.
“What made us lose the game was the kick in play,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said after the loss. “And it’s weird because I feel like we work on the kicks in play and get them back and then kick them, both ways I feel more than most teams. And they got us eu. They got a perfect inside kick and they managed to get the ball back.
Three penalties for 35 yards – on four successive holds – against the Tar Heels moved the Wolfpack into the scoring area, where Leary found Emezie at the left pylon for a 24-yard touchdown and a 34-30 lead.
A lot can happen in 26 seconds. UNC had a two-possession lead and was already shoveling dirt on top of NC State’s Atlantic Division title and ACC championship game hopes. Two touchdowns later, the Tar Heels racked their brains, wondering how a regular season that started with a top-10 national ranking could end with a .500 record and an epic collapse on the rival’s home field. .
“I just told the team we have to finish,” Brown said. “That’s all it is. We have to make the plays they made on the streak. We have to be more mature and we can’t have the penalties. We did everything you could do struggling with two minutes left to not end the game.”
The Tar Heels currently sit alone in fifth place in the ACC Coastal Division standings, looking at two teams they’ve beaten and two others they probably should have beaten. Friday night was an opportunity to approach the playoffs on a positive note. Instead, it was more or less the same as UNC was forced to watch its opponent make the plays necessary to win.
Brown spoke this week about the relevance of that rivalry, with fans of both schools scattered throughout the Triangle and beyond. As with most rivalries, bragging rights stay in place for an entire year, give or take a few days. This game, however, will serve as a defining moment in the UNC-NC State rivalry for years to come, a moment pulled from the highlight reel to explain to future generations why this game means so much to so many.