Tar Heels drop the ball on epic comeback at FSU

Florida State coach Mike Norvell celebrates with cornerback Jarvis Brownlee Jr. after the Seminoles upset UNC on Saturday. (Don Juan Moore / Character Lines via the ACC photo pool)

North Carolina coach Mack Brown, looking to light a spark under his struggling team, told his players at halftime that it had a chance to be part of the greatest comeback in school history.

And they almost did.

But just as they appeared ready to come roaring back from a 24-point deficit for the most improbable of victories, the fifth-ranked Tar Heels dropped the ball on their rally.

Literally.

Dazz Newsome and Javonte Williams both dropped passes that would have extended their team’s final drive, dooming UNC to a wild 31-28 loss to Florida State in Tallahassee. Kicker Grayson Atkins also missed a 44-yard field goal earlier in the fourth quarter that could at least have sent the game into overtime.

But while the Tar Heels’ hopes for an unbeaten season came to an end with those late miscues, it was their inability to extend drives earlier in the game — along with an inability to prevent Seminoles quarterback Jordan Travis from making big plays in the passing game and protect punter Ben Kiernan — that ultimately did them in.

Three thoughts

1. Florida State came into the game at 1-3, with its only win coming against FCS school Jacksonville State. But the Tar Heels did everything they could to help the Seminoles escape their doldrums with a nightmare of a first half.

Although UNC ran 45 plays to just 28 for its opponent over the first two quarters, leading to a nearly 10-minute advantage in time of possession, it was still outgained 280-241 and outscored 31-7. How did that happen? It started with a 2-for-8 conversion rate on third down and was compounded by a series of errors that included a failed fourth-down attempt, a Sam Howell pick six and two blocked punts.

UNC’s defense also contributed to the mess by making Travis — the third quarterback to start a game for FSU already this season — look like the second coming of Pat Mahomes while allowing him to run for two touchdowns.

2. UNC was a different team and Howell was a different quarterback in the second half. The Tar Heels outgained the Seminoles 317-152 over the final two quarters and Howell went 11 of 21 for 283 yards and three touchdowns after throwing for just 91 yards and no scores before halftime. Defensively, UNC pitched a shutout and got a key turnover when Trey Morrison picked off Travis on the final play of the third quarter. That drive, however, ended with a missed Atkins field goal that would loom large later.

3. Special teams continue to be a problem for the Tar Heels. Saturday, they had two punts blocked — one that led directly to the game’s first touchdown — they had exactly zero yards on kick and punt returns and they missed a field goal as well as a two-point conversion attempt. The field goal situation is particularly confounding. After struggling in that department last season, Brown brought in Atkins from Furman, where he set a Southern Conference record by making 18 straight three-pointers. But at UNC, he’s just 2 of 5 and has missed all three of his attempts of 40 yards or longer.

Number to know

0-10 — UNC coach Mack Brown’s career record at Tulane, Texas and UNC against Florida State, his alma mater.

Player of the Game

Travis Jordan, Florida State quarterback — Making only his second career start, the redshirt sophomore completed 8 of 19 passes for 191 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He also ran the ball 16 times for 107 yards and two scores. Although he completed four passes of 33 yards or more in the game, his biggest completion of the night went for just 12 yards to Carmen McDonald. But it came with just 17 seconds left in the half and less than a minute after UNC had scored, making the Tar Heels’ task in the second half just a little more difficult.

They Said it

“I’ll take responsibility for the first half and give the players the credit for fighting their way back in. If we’re going to be the program we want to be, and we are, we can’t take off the first half. We didn’t play with confidence and we didn’t make the plays we needed to.”

— Mack Brown, UNC coach

Critical thinking

Nobody, including Brown, thought that the Tar Heels were the fifth-best team in college football despite their lofty ranking in the national polls. Saturday, UNC proved it with one clunker of a first half in which everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.

But as bad as the Tar Heels were in falling behind 31-7 over the first 30 minutes, they were just as good over the final 30 while outscoring Florida State 21-0. They ran the ball effectively, Howell finally got into a rhythm and the defense eliminated the big plays that helped dig the early hole that proved too deep to escape.

If there’s anything positive Brown and his team can take from a loss that will likely knock them out of the top 10 and into a ranking for which they’re probably more deserving, it’s that they still possess the ability to beat anyone on their schedule — as long as they don’t beat themselves.