UNC football motivated by shocking 2021 loss to NC State

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N.C. State wide receiver Emeka Emezie (86) makes the game-winning touchdown reception as North Carolina defensive back Cam’Ron Kelly (9) defends late in the second half of N.C. State’s 34-30 victory over UNC at Carter-Finley Stadium on Nov. 26, 2021.

ehyman@newsobserver.com

From up nine with 2:04 remaining to leaving Carter-Finley Stadium with a 34-30 loss.

It’s not something North Carolina players have been constantly re-living as they prepare to face rival N.C. State on Friday in the regular-season finale. But rest assured, they remember the details from one of the most stunning defeats they’d ever been a part of.

“It was kind of like a blink of an eye, because I was actually on the onside team, so I was on the field when they recovered the onside kick,” UNC senior edge rusher Chris Collins said. “So that was another (feeling) like, ‘This can’t be happening.’ It felt like a nightmare. You know what? When I woke up, it was still real. That’s not something I would wish on anybody, that wasn’t a good feeling.”

Senior nose tackle Ray Vohasek tore his left labrum against Virginia Tech and won’t be lining up for the Tar Heels on Friday. He said losing that game was a big reason why he returned to school for another year.

“There will be a lot of emotions and things like that at senior night, but I just want to beat State,” Vohasek said. “After last year, that was one of my main goals coming back is to win this game.”

Vohasek sacked Devin Leary when the Pack took possession after a 50-yard field goal gave Carolina a 30-21 lead last season. But on the very next play, Leary connected with Emeka Emezie for a 64-yard touchdown pass on a play where cornerback Tony Grimes was expecting safety Cam Kelly for help over the top.

That took 29 seconds. And when Christopher Dunn recovered an onside kick to himself, the Pack went 54 yards in 24 seconds to take the lead, again on a Leary-to-Emezie touchdown pass.

“I felt shocked, honestly,” senior left tackle Asim Richards said. “We had it, a couple minutes left to go in the ballgame, and it just collapsed on us.”

UNC coach Mack Brown said he hasn’t been talking about last season’s loss to the Wolfpack as a motivating factor either. He actually tried that last week by bringing up Georgia Tech’s win against the Heels last season in Atlanta.

Carolina talked all week about the potential for a dreaded trap game, then played like it in a 21-17 loss.

“I used the revenge from last year’s Georgia Tech game and it really helped,” Brown joked. “When you got 120 (players), something gets all of them differently. You can’t talk to that many and one thing (resonate). They remember.”

For Collins, especially, it’s something he can’t forget. And as he makes his fourth start in place of injured graduate transfer Noah Taylor at UNC’s ‘Jack’ position, he’s not so willing to let it go. He wants to make sure the senior class goes out with a win against the Wolfpack in their final game in Kenan Stadium.

“I know personally, it’s been a big motivation for me,” Collins said. “I remember how that felt, leaving off their field with a loss. It just didn’t feel good, especially for the seniors. And that’s the biggest thing, me being senior this year.”

There’s an outline of the state of North Carolina in the Tar Heels’ team meeting room with the names of the four in-state opponents from this season’s schedule on it. After victories against Appalachian State, Duke and Wake Forest, the interlocking NC logo has covered out the names. The last one remaining is N.C. State, and a win against the Pack would allow the Tar Heels to stake claim to the unofficial state title.

That’s enough motivation to keep North Carolina focused on Friday, and not looking ahead to next week’s ACC championship game against Clemson.

“At the end of the day, it’s a big game because it’s the next game and they’re right down the road,” Collins said. “…You don’t want to mess up close to home, like coach Brown likes to say, just because we always see these guys. That’s bragging rights for 365 days. All you hear about was that loss. I know that’s all we’ve heard about being around these guys, was last year’s loss. So I definitely want to change that.”

C.L. Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.

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