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October 23, 2009

First Thursday night at Kenan ends in heartbreak

CHAPEL HILL - What began as a night to remember for North Carolina became a night it would rather forget.

With former star players roaming the sidelines and ESPN's cameras beaming all things Kenan Stadium nationwide, the Tar Heels watched a big lead disappear as Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder passed the Seminoles to a 30-27 comeback win.

It was the first-ever Thursday night game at Kenan Stadium, but the feeling of disappointment was all too familiar for Carolina, which remained winless in the ACC.

"It was a tough loss," UNC coach Butch Davis said. "I hate the way it ended."

Ponder completed 33 of 40 passes - including his last 16 in a row - for 395 yards passing and three touchdowns against the top-rated pass defense in the country.

The final score came with 6:20 to go, and it completed the Seminoles' comeback from an early 18-point deficit.

"We played like crap in the second half," UNC cornerback Kendric Burney said.

The momentum shifted on a pair of plays in the third quarter - one a disaster for UNC quarterback T.J. Yates and the other a record-setter for Ponder.

Trying to respond to FSU cutting UNC's lead to nine points, Yates threw a bad pass toward the end zone that Seminoles safety Jamie Robinson intercepted at his team's own 3-yard line.

That wouldn't have been a problem had Carolina's defense held fast and forced FSU to punt. But instead, Ponder found Rod Owens - who finished with nine catches for 199 yards - down the right sideline for a 98-yard touchdown, the longest in the history of Kenan Stadium.

Suddenly, Carolina (4-3, 0-3 in the ACC) was clinging to a 24-20 lead and back on its heels.

"They had the weapons to come back, and they showed what they could do," Burney said.

Carolina talked all week about how accurate Ponder was, but they weren't able to stop him.

The Heels came into this game with the nation's top-ranked pass defense, while FSU (3-4, 1-3) was second in the ACC and 13th nationally in passing offense, so something had to give.

And after being staked to a big lead early, the Tar Heels were surprised to find it was their defense that eventually caved.

Florida State racked up 236 of its 438 yards of total offense in the third quarter on the way to scoring 24 second-half points.

"It was totally uncharacteristic for us," UNC defensive end E.J. Wilson said. "There was a lot of miscommunication out there, guys were confused at times. Guys were trying to overcompensate on mistakes they made on previous plays."

Considering the start the Tar Heels had, the second half looked like one big mistake.

The Tar Heels were first to capitalize on the desperation that comes with being winless in league play.

Carolina looked like a different team offensively than it had in its first two ACC games, opening the game with a 10-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 5-yard Greg Little touchdown run.

After the Heels took away a fumble from FSU later in the first quarter, the offense needed just two plays to get in the end zone again, this time on a pass from Yates to tight end Ed Barham.

By starting the second half with another impressive drive that finished with Yates running in a touchdown from 10 yards out, Carolina was up 24-6 and looking like it might punctuate the celebratory mood in Kenan with a blowout win.

"We both really, really needed this game," Wilson said. "They came out and finished. Honestly, I can't really explain that."

Davis preached progress after the game, noting that the offense was a lot better than it was a few weeks ago and the loss would serve as a good wake-up call for a defense that looked like it was starting to believe its own hype.

But the bottom line was that a game that could have served as a celebration and a relief - neatly tucked into the context of a historically significant program-building moment of playing a Thursday night game at home for the first time - instead left the Tar Heels still looking for a league win and still lacking answers as to why they didn't have one.

"It's either you stand up to the challenge or you back down," Burney said. "I definitely know that me and my teammates are going to stand up to the challenge. I refuse to lose. I hate losing. Everybody hates losing. But I will never let anybody on this team quit."





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