After Tech yielded a relatively easy touchdown drive to cut the lead to 28-17, B-back Jordan Mason fumbled away the ball on the next possession, setting up a field goal for the Tar Heels (28-20), then failed to pick up a fourth-and-1 after a mishandled center-quarterback exchange between center Kenny Cooper and quarterback Tobias Oliver. That set up North Carolina’s game-tying touchdown drive (28-28).
That drive was followed by a lost fumble by Oliver inside the Tar Heels red zone, giving North Carolina a chance to take its first lead since it went up 7-0 in the first quarter on (surprise) a fumble by B-back Jerry Howard that was returned for a touchdown.
It was all too familiar for the Jackets and their fans. Tech lost four games last season and one game this year in which it held leads of 10 points or more. The Jackets lost to the same Tar Heels in 2015 after leading by 21, the largest lead ever surrendered in a loss in school history.
“I think on the sideline, we just kept saying we’ve got to keep battling through adversity, no matter if it’s us shooting ourselves in the foot or if it’s whatever’s happening in the ballgame,” said A-back Nathan Cottrell, who had a career day with nine carries for 90 yards and a touchdown. “That’s how football goes sometimes.”
With the game in the balance, safety Tariq Carpenter delivered an interception, and Oliver drove the Jackets 41 yards into the end zone for a 35-28 lead with three minutes to play. Defensive end Anree Saint-Amour, the team’s best defensive player this season, delivered another game-changing play, sensing a short pass and then stepping into quarterback Nathan Elliott’s passing lane for his second interception of the season. Wells put the game out of reach with 46 seconds to play with a 22-yard field goal, just the second of his career and first try in three games.
“I felt like I saw the running back flare out and I just kind of dropped back with it and just made a play,” Saint-Amour said. “Thank God for it, though.”
Oliver came in for starter TaQuon Marshall for the fourth possession and stayed in the rest of the way. Johnson called the switch a “gut thing, a feel thing. Probably the rest of the (season), that’s kind of what it’ll be.”
After the game, Johnson was frustrated with the three turnovers that nearly cost the Jackets the game. He was also not impressed by the offensive line, which helped generate 461 rushing yards, but in his estimation “got their (expletive) whupped.”
It was not a dismantling of the sort the Jackets gave Virginia Tech last week, but given the alternative, it would have to do. Tech will play at home against Miami next Saturday.
“I thought the defense did a great job there at the end getting a couple of turnovers when we had to have ’em, and we did what we had to do to get out of there winning the game,” Johnson said.
More coverage from Chapel Hill:
30 photos from the game
Paul Johnson’s unvarnished assessment of the game