CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina seems to bring out the worst in Miami, and in particular quarterback Stephen Morris.
Morris, who has been battling an injured right ankle for a month now, was finally able to put the Hurricanes on his back in a 27-23 victory after leading rusher Duke Johnson departed midway through the first quarter because of a blow to the head.
And wide receiver Phillip Dorsett also left because of a leg injury in the second period.
But it was a struggle until the final seconds as the Hurricanes (6-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) remained undefeated.
The senior quarterback got the Hurricanes — riding an eight-game winning streak and sporting a top-10 ranking for the first time since 2009 — off to a rocky start. He was intercepted on his second pass attempt of the night less than two minutes in against the slumping Tar Heels (1-5, 0-3) on a night dubbed Zero Dark Thursday.
Morris had just four interceptions through five wins for the Hurricanes, but he was picked off a career-high four times, the last coming near midfield with 8:50 left as he was flushed out of the pocket and Miami trailing by three and appearing to be headed for yet another disappointing defeat in cursed Chapel Hill.
However, he was able to put together a 90-yard game winning drive that started with 4:11 left. Although most of the march was spent handing off to the game’s star — Dallas Crawford — Morris did complete his final three passes for 34 yards, including two with Miami inside the North Carolina 28.
Morris was given some recent rest by coach Al Golden, but he was off his game against a North Carolina team that defeated Miami last season 18-14 as Morris completed just 12 of 26 passes and was intercepted twice last year while sustaining a left ankle injury.
On this night, twice Morris led his team into the red zone in the first quarter, only to badly overthrow a receiver in the end zone on the first drive inside the 20, while missing again on a connection while being pressured with 2:21 left in the first quarter.
Miami’s red zone offense has been a source of concern through its first five wins at 75.9 percent, good for just 12th in the 14-team ACC.
Morris did complete long passes for 68 yards (on the second field-goal drive), but the throw was badly played by two UNC defenders who had double coverage, and hit for 42 yards midway through the second quarter as Miami was marching toward a score. But he overthrew Allen Hurns at the UNC 11 and was intercepted for a second time.
The Tar Heels proceeded to drive 60 yards for a short field goal and a 17-13 halftime lead as the Miami offense was able to just put two field goals on the board, its only touchdown coming on a blocked field goal.
With Johnson out, Miami’s offense took to the air 22 times in the first 30 minutes, compared with 17 rushes.
Starting the second half, Dallas Crawford began to get into a rhythm, ripping off runs of 10, 16 and 6 yards as the Hurricanes marched into UNC territory to the 26. But Morris dropped back to pass on second-and-4 but couldn’t elude Kareem Martin’s grasp for a sack. Miami then missed a 43-yard field goal.
Miami’s third trip into the red zone late in the third quarter ended in yet another failed series as Morris attempted a screen pass from the UNC 17 that hit one of his offensive lineman in the back and was promptly intercepted — the third pick of the night for the Tar Heels against Morris.
North Carolina added a field goal after Morris’ third pick, however Golden didn’t make a move to backup Ryan Williams, opting to stay with Morris until the end.
It is unclear how long Johnson and Dorsett will be lost, or how long Morris will continue to nurse his sore ankle. The Miami offense, which had scored 30 or more points in eight of its past nine games, will soon have to attack the meat of the ACC schedule with Florida State and Virginia Tech on the horizon after playing Wake Forest on Oct. 26.