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September 15, 2012

Bizarre game, close outcome

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The North Carolina football team stared humiliation and embarrassment in the eye on Saturday at Louisville, and the Tar Heels did not blink.

Instead they stormed from behind 36-7 at halftime to have a chance to win the game with just a couple of minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Cardinals scored on every possession in the first half.

The roles could not have been more reversed in the second half unless UNC had actually completed the pass from quarterback Bryn Renner to Erik Highsmith with 1 minute and 49 seconds remaining to win the game.

The pass hit Highsmith in the hands, but a Louisville defender pulled his arm hard enough to keep Highsmith from coming down with the potentially winning TD.

"The play for me to get inside of him, but he was already lined up inside," Highsmith said. "He kind of grabbed my right arm. By the time I turned my head, the ball was in the air.

"I tried to go and make a play. I had possession. He just made a better play on it."

First-year UNC coach Larry Fedora was outraged at his players and coaching staff at halftime.

"From what I can remember of the first half, it was lack of effort, lack of intensity, lack of passion, lack of enthusiasm, a lot of mental mistakes," Fedora said. "You name it. Whatever could go wrong went wrong in the first half."

But when the game had ended and UNC fell just short, Fedora saw hope in the midst of the disappointment.

"We're going to take this and learn from it," Fedora said. "We learned a great lesson today. This team is not done. We're in our third game of new systems in all three areas.

"What we did learn today about the Tar Heels is they have a lot of fight in them. They've got something inside of them. That alone will give us a chance. We'll get better. We will definitely learn from this mistake. We will work harder in practice."

Renner threw five touchdowns and 363 yards in the comeback. He did not play well in the first half, but it's hard to imagine a QB playing better. He ran the offense with tempo and precision and made the right calls and superb passes.

And had an illegal motion penalty not stopped him on fourth down from the 4 at the end of the game, it appeared he was about to walk into the end zone for the winning TD.

"Bryn did a very nice job in the second half, a very nice job," Fedora said. "He gave us a chance to win the football game. We thought he was going to walk in when they called the penalty."

So did redshirt freshman running back Romar Morris. He scored two touchdowns, caught five passes for 149 yards, rushed four times for 24 yards and returned a kickoff 26 yards.

He also blocked a punt near the goal line that led to another UNC touchdown and pumped genuine hope into the Tar Heels that they could win the game.

"It was good playing as hard as I can," Morris said. "I'm just thankful I'm able to be on the field with those guys every day. I'm thankful Coach Fedora has belief in me.

"Coach Fedora put me in it this week so I could block the punt. I just did my job and everybody else did their job, and I got to the punt."

Romar caught a pass with four minutes and 23 seconds left in the game and turned it into a 50-yard TD that cut the score to 39-34 and put the Tar Heels in position to win.

"Romar had an early fumble, and he was really bothered by that," Renner said. "He grew up a lot. Big-time players make plays to make up for that one play. He made up for it big-time. He took a little check-down to the house. He did a lot of good things and helped us almost win the ball game."

Special teams then rose to the occasion again when the kickoff team forced a fumble on the ensuing kick. That is when the Tar Heels came so tantalizingly close to completing an amazing comeback.

"Romar Morris made all kinds of plays to give us an opportunity to give us a chance to be in that football game," Fedora said. "Romar got in there and got [the punt block]. On the kickoff return, I don't know who it was, but somebody knocked the tar out of the guy, and the guy put the ball on the ground. That gave us an opportunity.

"We didn't capitalize there at the end."

The good news is that with Giovani Bernard injured, Morris and A.J. Blue are doing an good job in his place. Now it's just a matter of the team starting the game strong and finishing strong.

A week ago, a weak finish led to a loss at Wake Forest. Saturday it was a disastrous first half.

"We make it a point in keys to victory, 'No self-inflicted wounds,'" Renner said. "We didn't execute in that category today. We had a false start in a key time of the game. You can't change time and you have to move forward."


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