A 27-10 loss to No. 6 South Carolina didn't feel quite so lopsided to North Carolina coach Larry Fedora.
He blamed a few big plays — the Gamecocks had a 75-yard touchdown run and a 65-yard touchdown pass — for derailing what would have been the biggest road upset in school history.
"That was a good measuring stick for us. I didn't look at tonight and say, 'we're so far away we're not going to make it.' I don't think we're that far away," Fedora said.
The game couldn't have opened much worse for the Tar Heels. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw found Shaq Roland for a 65-yard touchdown on the game's third play. Dylan Thompson threw a 29-yard TD to Kane Whitehurst later in the quarter and North Carolina was down 17-0 before the first quarter ended.
The Tar Heels put together a 16-play, 70-yard touchdown drive early in the second quarter, then stopped South Carolina on a three-and-out. But the chance to get back in the game fell from T.J. Thorpe's hands as he dropped a punt at midfield.
North Carolina opened the second half with a 17-play, 7-minute drive that ended with a field goal to cut the lead to 20-10. But Mike Davis, the younger brother of ex-Clemson 1,000-yard rusher James Davis, burst through the line on South Carolina's next snap and broke out for his long touchdown run.
"We had some really bad moments in some critical times," offensive lineman James Hurst said.
The Tar Heels had a 17-play drive stall at the 2 in the third quarter and settled for a field goal and drove to South Carolina's 2 again in the final two minutes, but could not score. Quarterback Bryn Renner was stopped a yard short of the end zone by defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles.
"We need to make better decisions with the ball, we have to block better and we have to run harder," Fedora said. "You have to make plays and we didn't tonight."
Renner went 26 of 43 for 194 yards and a touchdown. Romar Morris ran for 69 yards as the Tar Heels gained 293 yards, well below their average of 486 yards a game last season.
The Tar Heels did manage to keep All-American Jadeveon Clowney in check. He did not have a sack and finished with three first-half tackles. The Tar Heels' fast-paced offense wore him down and forced him to the sideline for several pit stops
"I didn't really think he was a huge factor. There were other guys I thought made some plays — that could have been because we were overly concerned with him," Fedora said.
North Carolina continually played away from Clowney's side with short passes and quick runs. When the Tar Heels did come his way, left tackle James Hurst — an all-ACC player with NFL hopes of his own — did a solid job keeping No. 7 in check.
"I didn't want him to touch our quarterback. He did have his plays. There were a couple of plays I remember where he definitely beat me. That's was my goal. I didn't want him to knock our quarterback, I was proud of that," Hurst said.
The game was delayed nearly two hours in the fourth quarter by rain and lightning. The Gamecocks were already in control then. The only excitement came at the end when South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier threw the ball on second down from his own 2 with 11 seconds to go. Fedora said that prompted him to call a timeout with five seconds left to force Spurrier to punt.
"I was going to try to block it," Fedora said.