BLACKSBURG, Va. — It was a new day, a new opponent, a new stadium, but the same costly mistakes.
Tight end Eric Ebron (left) and quarterback Marquise Williams console each other following UNC's 27-17 loss.
It was almost like déjà vu for North Carolina in its 27-17 loss at Virginia Tech on Saturday.
There were the same big plays for the opponent — a 45-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and an 83-yard pass that set up the Hokies’ third touchdown. There was the touchdown called back for the third game in a row, this time an 81-yard punt return by Ryan Switzer that was negated by a Malik Simmons block in the back. There were the penalties — 11 of them for 79 yards this time around.
And, most importantly, there were the turnovers. UNC tallied more offensive yards than Virginia Tech, but the Hokies won the battle of possession. While the Tar Heels failed to create a turnover, they gave the ball back three times.
The turnover problem came to a crest late in the fourth quarter, when Switzer muffed a punt at UNC’s own 17-yard line. Two minutes and change later, the Hokies found the end zone and put a stamp on their victory.
“We made a lot of mistakes today,” coach Larry Fedora said. “It was good to see our guys turn loose a bit and play, but we just made too many mistakes on the road to be able to win a game like that.”
For UNC, there’s nothing else to shift the blame to besides self-defeating miscues. It can't even be placed on injuries, which forced Marquise Williams to take the reins of the Tar Heel offense while Bryn Renner missed his first start in 30 games with a left foot injury.
While Williams did have two interceptions, the sophomore did enough to put UNC in a position to win. He led a remodeled offense and gained 56 yards on 18 carries, but he also flashed proficiency with his arm. He completed 23 of his 35 passes for 277 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“I was proud of the way Marquise played,” Fedora said. “He did a heck of a job stepping in for Bryn, finding out he was going to start right before the game. There’s only one throw he made that we would like to have back. Other than that, I thought he threw the ball really well and managed the game well.”
It wasn’t entirely identical to UNC’s previous losses. The Tar Heels admitted they were more focused and energized entering Saturday’s game than they were last week.
But, simply trying harder didn’t effect any change. The theory is that a boosted sense of urgency would translate to better execution. That never happened.
UNC made its share of big defensive stops, flying to the football and forcing eight Virginia Tech punts. But, intermittent miscues still came back to bite the Tar Heels in a big way.
Twice a breakdown in communication beset the Tar Heel secondary. On the Hokies’ first touchdown, one of the defensive backs received a different call from the sideline, resulting in a busted coverage. On the 83-yard pass — which came from Virginia Tech’s own two-yard line — the defense was improperly aligned.
On the offensive side of the ball, a sack and a blown reverse on consecutive plays stalled a promising third-quarter Tar Heel drive in the red zone.
The means may have been different in terms of intensity, but the ends were still the same.
“We had a lot better effort from the defense as a whole. We played with that desperate feeling that we’ve been wanting forever,” cornerback Jabari Price said. “What’s most frustrating is this (type of loss) right here. You look back on this game, and you say, ‘Dang, if I would have done this, it’s a different ball game,’ … it’s the little things.”
For the fourth time this year, the Tar Heels were left wondering what if. What if there wasn’t that hold, or that missed tackle, or that blown assignment? The mistakes weren’t new, and neither was the result.
The Tar Heels haven’t yet shelved the book that was their turbulent start. The game against Virginia Tech might have been a new chapter, but it was still the same old story.