(Note: This article can also be found at my UNC blog, at Carolina Tar Heel Blue)
Hakeem Nicks did all he could for North Carolina (8-5, 4-4 ACC).
Nicks took three of T.J. Yates' passes for touchdowns and totaled 217 yards in a performance that will likely increase the likelihood that the rangy wide receiver departs for the greener pastures of the NFL. He may, in fact, corral quite a bit of green as a potential second round pick on draft day.
A fourth quarter fumble by Shaun Draughn on the Mountaineers' 29-yard line and an interception by Yates in the final possession were the final nails in the coffin, but the Tar Heels also failed to stop West Virginia's passing game and third down offense.
West Virginia (9-4, 5-2 Big East) quarterback Pat White was an incredibly efficient 27 of 33 for 334 yards. He also ran for 56 yards on 21 attempts, though UNC was much more effective at stopping his legs than they were his arm.
The Mountaineers continuously converted short third downs (12 of 19 overall), and yet the Heels still had more than enough opportunities to win the game.
Draughn's fumble can mostly be excused. He was wrapped up and almost down, with his legs bent awkwardly under him. He held tight to the ball, but it was ripped away before any elbow, buttock, knee, arm, etc. could find the turf.
Yates' interception, on the other hand, was totally inexcusable. He stared down his receiver, threw into heavy coverage, and was easily picked off.
This is the way the regular season went. When North Carolina secured the football, they won, compiling a +8 turnover margin in their eight wins. In the four games they lost, the Tar Heels had a far less impressive -4 turnover margin. This time, the turnovers couldn't have come at a more critical juncture of the game.
This team, and its leader Yates, will presumably be more mature and, obviously, more experienced when they take the field next fall. Hopefully, there will be a lower incidence of sloppy mistakes like Yates' fourth quarter interception.
Though they lose senior playmaker Brandon Tate and possibly Nicks (to the NFL), there are plenty of reasons for the Heels to be hopeful for 2009, including another impressive recruiting class on the way.
Butch Davis might want to duct tape a football to every single offensive player's hands in the offseason. The lesson is simple. Give the ball to the other team and you are going to lose.