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November 20, 2010CHAPEL HILL - Some of the last players to come off the field after North Carolina's loss to N.C. State were a handful of the Tar Heel seniors, who lingered as long as they could while the band played the alma mater.
"I wanted to drink it all in," senior safety Deunta Williams said. "It wasn't even about the loss. It was about my last time playing here. It had nothing to do with N.C. State."
But there was no denying that it was more than just nostalgia that had the Carolina seniors down after the 29-25 defeat.
Like the fact that this class has never beaten the Wolfpack in Butch Davis' four seasons as head coach.
"It's tough to lose to those guys, period, but especially close, at home on senior night," senior tackle Mike Ingersoll said.
The fact that Carolina (6-5, 3-4 in the ACC) blew a nine-point second half lead and was unable to spoil the ACC title game aspirations for the Wolfpack (8-3, 5-2) only made it worse.
UNC had a chance to tie the game late, scoring a 1-yard touchdown pass from T.J. Yates to Christian Wilson to pull within two with 1:05 remaining, but Yates' pass attempt on the 2-point conversion fell incomplete after being tipped around.
But that wasn't the wild end zone ricochet that doomed the Tar Heels.
That play, the one that completely changed the game, happened late in the third quarter, with the Tar Heels leading 19-10.
Instead of kicking a field goal on fourth-and-goal at the UNC 2-yard line, State elected to go for it. Quarterback Russell Wilson, under pressure, threw the ball to the end zone, where UNC safety Da'Norris Searcy tried to bat it down only to have State wide receiver Owen Spencer catch it for the score.
"I thought it was incomplete because the receiver I was fighting for it (Darrell Davis) was under me," Searcy said. "I just heard the crowd reaction. When I got up, I was like, 'What happened?' That gave them the momentum."
After a review to make sure that Davis, who had stepped out of bounds, was not the player who tipped it to Spencer, the play stood.
Adding insult to injury, the Tar Heels lost linebacker Kevin Reddick on the play, as he and State receiver Jarvis Williams were ejected for fighting.
If that play started the momentum going the Wolfpack's way, what happened on the next series completed the transition.
Carolina punted on its ensuing possession, and State's T.J. Graham ran the punt back 87 yards for a touchdown to put the Wolfpack ahead 24-19 a minute into the fourth quarter.
That punt seemed to sap some of the remaining energy from the Tar Heels, who fell behind by eight later in the fourth before staging the last-gasp effort.
"A punt return for a touchdown is almost always a back-breaker and something that is extraordinarily difficult to overcome," Davis said.
The Tar Heels hurt themselves early, though, by failing to capitalize on red-zone opportunities with touchdowns. Twice, Carolina started with first-and-goal and had to settle for short field goals by Casey Barth, who made four field goals in the game.
"In the back of your mind, when you're kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, you know it's going to catch up to you," Ingersoll said. "But at the same time, you have to take points when you can get them."
The inability to build a bigger lead early helped make those big plays later even bigger for State.
And that ruined what could have been a memorable day for some UNC seniors, like Anthony Elzy, who set a UNC record for receiving yards by a running back with 178 on nine catches.
Or Yates, who became the first Tar Heel to ever throw for 400 yards in a game three times, and set a school single-game record with 33 completions. His 411 passing yards were the most ever by a Tar Heel in Kenan Stadium.
He broke his own school record for single-season passing yards, and in the third quarter passed Darian Durant for the most career passing yards in Carolina history.
But he was also sacked seven times for minus-55 yards.
And as he sat for post-game interviews with his sprained thumb wrapped up following an x-ray at UNC Hospitals, Yates was thinking more about the Wolfpack than he was about his bruised body or his assault on the record book.
"That's what hurts the worst - I never got the better of them," Yates said. "We definitely left some things out there on the field today, and that's the most disappointing."