CHAPEL HILL – With a chance to secure its first victory against a top-10 opponent in nine years, North Carolina began the fourth quarter exactly where it needed to be.
Instead, it turned into a fourth quarter the Tar Heels would like to have back.
No. 10 Miami overcame a 10-point fourth quarter deficit and scored the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds remaining Thursday at Kenan Stadium, escaping with a 27-23 victory against North Carolina.
The Tar Heels managed to move to the Hurricanes' 28-yard line in two plays, but their last-effort Hail Mary was batted away as time expired.
“It's deflating,” North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner said. “We put our heart and soul into this game. We had a great bye week of practice. We had the best week of practice we've had probably in a while. To come up short is frustrating.”
After the Tar Heels (1-5, 0-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) took a 23-13 advantage 43 seconds into the fourth quarter, Miami rallied to take the lead.
The Hurricanes (6-0, 2-0 ACC) mounted touchdown drives of seven plays, 75 yards and 13 plays, 95 yards – both finished with three-yard Dallas Crawford touchdown runs – to stay undefeated.
North Carolina's defense had held Miami's offense to six points before the fourth quarter, but Miami's running game took control of the game. The Hurricanes ran on 16 of 20 plays on the two scoring drives.
“The defense was making plays throughout the entire game,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “I really thought we could stop them. I really did.”
Ahead by three points after Miami made the score 23-20, North Carolina had three additional possessions but couldn't put away the game. The Tar Heels went three-and-out twice and threw an interception.
On a key third-and-1, North Carolina substituted players late in the play clock and the officials stood over the ball to allow Miami to substitute as well, which eventually lead to a false start penalty. North Carolina was stopped short of the marker on the next play.
Renner said he “really didn't want to comment” on the situation.
A defense is allowed three seconds to match substitutions, but Fedora said he thought North Carolina made its moves “with plenty of time.”
Miami overcame four interceptions by quarterback Stephen Morris and injuries to receiver Stacey Coley and running back Duke Johnson, the ACC's leading rusher. Both players left the game and did not return, but Miami was noticeably hampered by the loss of Johnson, who had eight carries and 81 yards before going out.
Crawford rushed for 137 yards on 33 carries in his absence, and his two touchdown runs kept alive Miami's hopes of running the table.
“We have four interceptions, we lose pivotal players and everybody just rallies,” Miami coach Al Golden said. “It just says a lot about the guys. There is no turning back for this group right now.”
North Carolina made five trips inside the redzone but settled for field goal attempts on four of them, one of which was blocked and returned 67 yards for a touchdown.
The Tar Heels also threw two interceptions inside the Hurricanes' 11-yard line.
“We're still hurting ourselves with penalties, still making mistakes offensively that are crushing us, that are too hard to overcome or we can't overcome right now,” Fedora said.
Tight end Eric Ebron had a monster game for North Carolina, catching eight passes for 199 yards, a school record for a tight end. Ebron caught a 71-yard touchdown in the first quarter – the longest play of the season for North Carolina – in which he broke two tackles and outran the defense for a score.
As soon as the Hail Mary hit the ground, many Miami players went to Ebron to offer congratulations.
“I felt I played one of the best games a tight end could ever play, but for my family, for my teammates, it still felt like I could've done something better,” Ebron said. “I let them down. We should've had the win. We could've had the win. But we didn't”
Renner finished 28-for-36 for 296 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Jabari Price made 10 tackles to lead North Carolina, while true freshman Dominique Green intercepted two passes.
Like Ebron, Price said he wasn't interested in his personal success because it didn't result in a victory.
“As a senior, going out 1-5 right now is hurting me more than anything,” Price said.
North Carolina hasn't beaten a ranked team since 2009, and it almost certainly will have to wait until next season to play another team in the top 10.
The Tar Heels felt they have made progress, but Fedora said they let Thursday's game slip away.
“Give Miami credit. They made plays when they had to make 'em, and they won the football game,” Fedora said. “Just a tough one for us to swallow right now.”