There were two plays and a common coaching mistake that made the real difference between a win and a loss in the UNC Tar Heels' 30-24 loss to the Miami Hurricanes.
It wasn't any of the plays that caused the slow start in the first half, or giving up 17 points with a weak, vulnerable and flat defense. It wasn't the players who failed to protect Bryn Renner, who was beaten up time after time.
It wasn't the presence of new athletic director Lawrence "Bubba" Cunningham. And it wasn't the relatively unimpressive play calling by interim head coach Everett Withers, on both sides of the ball.
Only poor clock management cost the Tar Heels another win. It looked like two calls in the fourth quarter were partially at fault. In two out of three plays, the clock appeared to continue to run immediately after a Carolina player ran out of bounds.
Why officials kept the clock running is not clear—but they did, and a total of at least nearly a minute ran off of the clock after these two plays.
Like in the Georgia Tech game, time ran off. And like the Georgia Tech game, the clock moved very quickly while Renner tried to figure out the called play and dallied at the line of scrimmage, without any apparent concern about the clock.
In the end, in both games, the pressure of the clock at the end of the game cost the Tar Heels a successful end of a football game. If Withers and his quarterback were more careful with the time, both could have easily ended up in wins, and UNC would be undefeated and nationally ranked.
As it is, the Tar Heels are in great shape for another minor bowl. But thirteen points are all that separate UNC from an undefeated season and a major bowl.
If North Carolina is to reach a higher plane, there is nothing more important than speeding things up. From the formations on the field to the calling of signals to the execution of the plays, Carolina gives the impression that they are moving through molasses.
Although rarely mentioned in considering any level of football, tempo is perhaps as important as any intangible in the game. Indeed, it may be the most important of all.
From Boise State to Oregon to the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Buffalo Bills, college and pro teams win only after they develop great rhythm. The team that can dance together wins together.
Disrupting that rhythm—making a team work out of its timing—is essential to a great defense, and creates the opportunity for a win.
The most basic element of time is the use of the clock. You may need to change tempo as the situation dictates, but the beat and timing remain.
So what needs to be done in Carolina's case? Can the Tar Heels regain momentum and end up 9-2?
The answer is perhaps hidden in the development of team timing by Coach Withers.
His future hangs in the balance.