Carolina was mere inches from clinching a primetime victory against Virginia Tech Saturday night. A Michael Carter fumble, a Tech recovery six, and some ninety-eight yards later, the results flipped. The Hokies left the field with a key ACC victory and the Tar Heels stared at the reality of a 1–4 start.
Playing without question the most inspired, energized, and focused game they have all season, Carolina controlled the game from wire to almost wire, taking it to a Virginia Tech team that has teetered just outside the Top 25 all season*.
Chances to rack up points and put the game on ice early were bountiful, but the Tar Heels left almost all of them on the field. Dazz Newsome beat deep coverage twice on a single drive. He had nothing but green in front of him, only to drop the first and be overthrown by Nathan Elliott—who came on after a very impressive Cade Fortin suffered a leg injury—on another.
Later, Elliott missed a wide-open Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who somehow found himself in the end zone with the nearest defender a dozen yards away. That drive later ended with a thud on Freeman Jones’s second missed field goal of the night.
Scoring just one touchdown in seven red zone trips, the Tar Heels’ inability to put up six would be their ultimate undoing. After Carter’s game-defining turnover, Tech steadily drove the length of the field, converting a handful of third downs on their way to a one-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Willis to tight end Dalton Keene.
And just like that, the elation that filled the perfect Chapel Hill night turned into more woe over a team that seems to find new ways every week to disappoint. Hard as it might be to believe, however, the night did have some upside, as the quarterback of Carolina’s future was likely discovered in Kenan Memorial Stadium.
For most of the first half, true freshman signal caller Cade Fortin looked poised and ready to take the reins of the Tar Heels for the foreseeable future. Going ten-for-eighteen for ninety-seven yards while adding another forty-four on the ground, Fortin looked every bit the highly touted recruit he was coming out of Georgia—before taking a violent hit on an improvised scramble that ended his night. On the sidelines, potential Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant took in the game, surmising what Chapel Hill might have to offer for his final year of eligibility.
With a season that has highlighted such herky-jerky quarterback play, the idea that the Tar Heels future, be it Fortin or Bryant, was in the building should be very reassuring in a season as bad as this.
*Any team that loses to Old Dominion should be nowhere near the Top 25, but that’s another story for another time.