A 71-yard touchdown pass from Marquise Williams to Eric Ebron with just under five and a half minutes to play in the first quarter gave North Carolina a lead of no. 10 Miami that it held for almost the whole game.
The Hurricanes trailed by seven points at halftime, after losing three starters including star running backDuke Johnson to injury, and were still down by a field goal until the clock ticked down to 16 seconds and Dallas Crawford carried the ball three yards into Miami's end zone to secure a 27-23 victory.
The touchdown drive that gave the nationally tenth-ranked team its sixth win to remain undefeated covered 90 yards - Canes caught for 34 of those and Crawford and Eduardo Clements combined to cover the rest on the ground- it took 3:55 off the clock and it showed answered North Carolina's previous forced-to-punt spoiled-by-penalty possession.
UNC had the ball on its own 49-yard line, Williams had just rushed the ball to a third down and (short) one yard, and the Tar Heels substituted starting quarterback Bryn Renner back into the game.
Then, the referees called a delay of game, handing UNC a four-yard penalty, adding to the already-existing penalty problem that the Tar Heels have had this season.
"Well I was hoping to pick up a first down," coach Larry Fedora said. "It was third down and one yard, less than a yard, and we substituted and they felt like they needed to stand on the ball and we couldn't snap it. I'm not sure I still understand it yet so I'll have to get an interpretation there, but again that's my responsibility so that's my fault that we didn't get that off."
"I just didn't think (Miami) was going to hold (the ball) all the way up until the end. So again, that's my responsibility. I should've called a timeout."
Then, on the third-and-five snap, Miami linebacker Tyriq McCord sacked Renner.
"(Then) the sack… the tackle got beat, I don't know what to tell you. He got cornered and got beat. We were going to try and pick up a first down. We tried to," Fedora said.
Tommy Hibbard punted the ball and put the Hurricanes on their own 10-yard line, where the Hurricanes began their game-winning drive.
The play that resulted in the delay of game penalty was one Renner said the team hears called regularly, he added that he thought the officials "called a great game all game," and said he really did not want to comment on the call. He added firmly, though, that the execution process of the play was completed accurately in terms of what the Tar Heels were trying to do.
"We have that play called every week, a little off-tackle play, and I think we got it in within time, but obviously (there was) miscommunication between the officials or something like that and I just don't want to comment on it," he said.
The delay of game penalty was one of seven called on North
Carolina over the course of the night, which added together to cost the home team 44 yards - almost 20 fewer than the 63.2 yards per game that the Tar Heels lose to flags.
But losing fewer yards against Miami for penalties was not the only area in which UNC played better than it has on average this season.
The offense netted 500 yards, a better mark than its 410.7 yards per game average, by beating its 309.8 yards per game in passing as Eric Ebron caught for 199 yards to set a school record for most yards by a tight end in a single game on the way to UNC's 395 passing yards.
Running back TJ Logan and Williams lead ball carriers as North Carolina ran for 105 yards, just passing its season average of 100.8 yards per game.
The tackles the spirited defense made Thursday night allowed missed tackles to be left out of the post-game conversations by players, and the four picks - one by each Tre Boston and Norkeithus Otis, and two by Dominique Green - were a season-high.
But corner back Jabari Price said that a better defense was still not good enough.
"People may think the defense played well and all that but there were still mistakes and errors that cost us," he said. "I feel like the offense put on a show out there and we did some, but I don't think we did enough personally. We have a lot of potential on our defense and I have high expectations for that and I just feel like we could've done a better job."
The Pampano Beach, Fla. native who ran down Johnson on a 59 yard carry to stop him at the 12-yard line and prevent a Miami touchdown on the Canes' second drive of the game, said that the loss came with extra sting as Miami had not began to recruit him out of high school until after North Carolina had offered him.
"I don't know if you've noticed in the past, but when teams get in the red zone on us, they typically score on us and talking before this game with the seniors and the other guys, we talk about bending and don't break and they may get a good play, they're a good offense, but let's hold them to three points," Price said. "We were preaching it, and preaching it and I figured I'd just lay it all on the line for the guys next to me."
Fedora, Renner and each of the players who discussed the game after the loss agreed that the defeat carried more weight because of the game-long effort and lead and also because of the must-win position it put the rest of the season in.
"It's deflating," Renner said. "We poured our heart and soul in this game. We had a great bye week of practice - we had the best week of practice we've had probably in a while - and to come up a little bit short, it's very frustrating. But well get better from this and we've got a lot of season to play."