Each unforced error, mental mistake and flag on the field at Kenan Stadium was a log on the fire.
It wasn’t long before Miami’s chances to win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division went up in smoke.
The Hurricanes had made it their mission all season to reach the conference championship game, but they self-destructed in a 59-21 loss at North Carolina on Saturday.
“We felt that when we came into this game that we would be ready to go,” Miami interim coach Larry Scott said. “Obviously the results didn’t lend to that.”
Miami (6-4, 3-3 ACC) trailed 31-0 at halftime and 45-0 midway through the third quarter before finding some semblance of respectability.
It wasn’t that the Hurricanes were powerless to move the ball on offense or hopelessly overmatched on defense. The issue was that Miami kept making mistakes that made the game easy for North Carolina (9-1, 6-0). The Tar Heels scored four touchdowns in the first half and needed a total of only 89 offensive yards on those possessions to do it.
Two turnovers, one on a bad shotgun snap from center and another on an interception by quarterback Brad Kaaya, led to short touchdown drives for the Tar Heels. A third turnover, when Kaaya was sacked late in the first half, robbed the Hurricanes of a chance to score before intermission.
Miami also racked up 12 penalties for 103 yards, including nine infractions for 80 yards in the first half.
“The biggest piece to it is that you have to play smart,” Scott said. “Obviously, we cannot have the penalties, especially the ones that hurt us the most. When you do that in a game like this, those are the things that come back and bite you. They’re explosive enough to take advantage when you give them things like that.”
Miami amassed 425 yards of offense and actually outgained the Tar Heels 189-186 in the first half. But the truth is that the Hurricanes never gave themselves a chance.
The mistakes came early and often. The Hurricanes had a penalty for 12 men on the field on defense, two illegal formations by their offense, and a pair of infractions for unsportsmanlike conduct in the game’s first 20 minutes.
At the point when North Carolina took a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter, Miami had 70 yards of offense and 55 yards of penalties.
To add to the frustration, the Hurricanes canceled out their few positive plays with instant negativity.
Stacy Coley made a 34-yard reception for Miami’s longest play of the first half and immediately gave back almost half of it when he was flagged for taunting. The Hurricanes’ longest drive of the first half, a 43-yard march, ended with an interception that Jeff Schoettmer returned 60 yards to set up a touchdown that gave the Tar Heels a 24-0 lead.
“We just kept kicking ourselves in the foot,” tight end Chris Herndon said. “When we made big plays, sometimes it would get called back. Or if we would get some momentum, it would get called back. We just hurt ourselves [Saturday].”
After the Tar Heels went ahead 24-0, Miami recovered the ensuing onside kick for rare good field position. But Kc McDermott was called for holding on the first play to wipe out a big gain. The drive ended when Michael Badgley, the nation’s leader in field goals, missed a 32-yard attempt wide left.
The sequence provided an appropriate symbol for a disastrous performance overall.
“We didn’t finish drives in the red zone,” Kaaya said. “Once we crossed the 50, we just stalled out or had penalties or turned the ball over. That’s the big thing, just finishing drives.”