North Carolina squanders opportunity

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

It was an all too familiar ending for North Carolina.

Just as the Tar Heels squandered their opportunity to win the ACC's Coastal Division in the waning weeks of the regular season, they turned over their opportunity to win the program's first bowl game since 2001.

In what was one of the more entertaining games of the ACC's season, North Carolina made one too many mistakes in its 31-30 loss to West Virginia. Mountaineers quarterback Pat White played an outstanding game, but North Carolina countered with Hakeem Nicks and had the win in their grasp until the fourth quarter.

While Butch Davis undoubtedly raised the program to a new level this season by winning eight games and taking the Tar Heels to their first bowl game since 2004, it's difficult not to think about what could have been. There was so much promise on this roster, and expectations were soaring in Davis' second season. But North Carolina lost two of its last three games, and the bowl game loss is one that will linger because of how the Tar Heels lost it.

Trailing 30-24, West Virginia wasted a timeout for a poorly called play on fourth-and-1 that resulted in a loss of four yards. All North Carolina had to do was keep the ball and run out the clock.

Instead, Shaun Draughn fumbled and West Virginia scored three plays later to take the 31-30 lead. This wasn't a clumsy fumble or a foolish mistake. West Virginia had to practically break Draughn's legs to pry the ball loose.

UNC got a second chance to win the game, and needed only to get within field goal range on its final possession, but quarterback T.J. Yates threw a costly interception that erased an otherwise strong performance.

The loss overshadowed another incredible record-setting performance by Nicks, who finished with eight catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns. He was the Tar Heels offense, and probably for the last time.

For the most part, UNC took advantage of two starters missing in the West Virginia secondary, and smart play calling by offensive coordinator John Shoop in the first half. North Carolina's misdirection kept the Mountaineers off balance, and Nicks got the Tar Heels critical first downs for four quarters. But the defense gave Pat White too much time, and his offensive line gave him good protection.

Had North Carolina won, it would have been an excellent 2-0 start for a league desperate to improve upon its two-win postseason from 2007. Instead, the league dropped to 2-3 against the Big East, 1-1 in the bowls, and North Carolina has to wait until next year to make its statement in the conference and the postseason.