ACC: Meineke 0827

North Carolina squanders opportunity

December, 27, 2008
12/27/08
4:32
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

It was an all too familiar ending for North Carolina.

 
 AP Photo/Nell Redmond
 T.J. Yates' interception with less than 2 minutes left shut the door on the Tar Heels' hopes.

Just as the Tar Heels squandered their opportunity to win the ACC's Coastal Division in the waning weeks of the regular season, they turned over their opportunity to win the program's first bowl game since 2001.

In what was one of the more entertaining games of the ACC's season, North Carolina made one too many mistakes in its 31-30 loss to West Virginia. Mountaineers quarterback Pat White played an outstanding game, but North Carolina countered with Hakeem Nicks and had the win in their grasp until the fourth quarter.

While Butch Davis undoubtedly raised the program to a new level this season by winning eight games and taking the Tar Heels to their first bowl game since 2004, it's difficult not to think about what could have been. There was so much promise on this roster, and expectations were soaring in Davis' second season. But North Carolina lost two of its last three games, and the bowl game loss is one that will linger because of how the Tar Heels lost it.

Trailing 30-24, West Virginia wasted a timeout for a poorly called play on fourth-and-1 that resulted in a loss of four yards. All North Carolina had to do was keep the ball and run out the clock.

Instead, Shaun Draughn fumbled and West Virginia scored three plays later to take the 31-30 lead. This wasn't a clumsy fumble or a foolish mistake. West Virginia had to practically break Draughn's legs to pry the ball loose.

UNC got a second chance to win the game, and needed only to get within field goal range on its final possession, but quarterback T.J. Yates threw a costly interception that erased an otherwise strong performance.

The loss overshadowed another incredible record-setting performance by Nicks, who finished with eight catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns. He was the Tar Heels offense, and probably for the last time.

For the most part, UNC took advantage of two starters missing in the West Virginia secondary, and smart play calling by offensive coordinator John Shoop in the first half. North Carolina's misdirection kept the Mountaineers off balance, and Nicks got the Tar Heels critical first downs for four quarters. But the defense gave Pat White too much time, and his offensive line gave him good protection.

Had North Carolina won, it would have been an excellent 2-0 start for a league desperate to improve upon its two-win postseason from 2007. Instead, the league dropped to 2-3 against the Big East, 1-1 in the bowls, and North Carolina has to wait until next year to make its statement in the conference and the postseason.

Meineke Car Care Bowl preview

December, 27, 2008
12/27/08
9:44
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

WHO TO WATCH: UNC safety Trimane Goddard. He has game-changing ability, having twice intercepted passes on an opponent's final drive to seal a win (Miami and Duke). And against Notre Dame, his fumble recovery clinched Carolina's victory. Goddard is tied for the national lead with seven interceptions, including a 51-yard interception return for a score against Boston College. He has had his best season at Carolina, and is the most experienced player on defense with 30 career starts.

WHAT TO WATCH: Aside from the obvious -- North Carolina's defense on Pat White and Noel Devine -- keep an eye on how UNC overcomes West Virginia's quirky 3-3-5 stack defensive alignment. It could make things more difficult for quarterback T.J. Yates, as it's difficult to determine who the fourth rusher will be, and presents a challenge in pass protection. And with five defensive backs out there, it could be a long day for standout receiver Hakeem Nicks.

WHY TO WATCH: It's the first time North Carolina is in a bowl game since 2004, and it could be the last time Nicks wears a Tar Heel uniform. Nicks has yet to decide whether he wants to leave school early for the NFL draft.

SPONSORED HEADLINES