Trampled on tobacco road: Utes lose to North Carolina 31-17

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.-Two weeks after a sluggish showing and loss to TCU, the Utes (3-2) put together an even sloppier performance Saturday, turning their second-consecutive road loss, 31-17.

The Utes turned the ball over five times and committed a season-high 12 penalties as the Heels (2-2) overcame a third-quarter deficit to run away with their second victory in a row.

“You’re not going to win any football games turning the ball over five times. It’s just not going to happen,” Whittingham said.

The Ute defense kept the Heels in check for much of the game, until the Utes’ offensive miscues finally caught up with them. Cedrick Holt intercepted a tipped Brian Johnson pass midway through the third quarter, setting up a nine-play, 68-yard UNC scoring drive.

Tar Heel quarterback Matt Baker, who has struggled all season in his first year as the starter, finally started to catch fire on that drive. He completed three passes for 51 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown strike to Wallace Wright that put the Heels on top, 17-14.

Baker dodged a bullet two drives later, when an Eric Weddle interception returned for a touchdown was called back due to a roughing-the-passer penalty on Ute safety Casey Evans.

“That was a big turning point in the game,” Whittingham said.

It didn’t take long for Baker and the UNC offense to capitalize as the senior quarterback connected with junior wideout Mike Mason for a 40-yard completion deep in Utah territory, setting up a 1-yard touchdown run by tailback Barrington Edwards that opened up a 10-point lead.

After that, it was all Heels. The Utes turned over the ball three more times in the fourth quarter, including two fumbles in a span of less than one minute. The second of the two came on a pitch to Quinton Ganther, who rushed for 16 yards before putting the ball on the ground and giving North Carolina prime field position. That proved to be damaging for Utah, as Baker, suddenly looking like a different quarterback than the one who was picked off twice in the first half, found Jesse Holley for a 43-yard score that gave the Heels a two-touchdown advantage. The Utes got the ball back three more times in the quarter, but couldn’t get anything going.

“(The Tar Heels) just did a good job of making plays. We’ve just got to be better on offense. It was a poor performance,” Johnson said. “You just can’t turn the ball over. You’ve got to protect the ball, and we didn’t do a good job of that, and we’ve got to get that fixed.”

With Quinton Ganther on the sidelines for the Utes’ first two offensive series-after the senior was disciplined for undisclosed reasons-Johnson established himself as the focal point of the offense early. Ganther never got on track, finishing with only 55 yards rushing, leaving Johnson to shoulder most of the offensive burden. Before turning it over three times in the second half, he did a good job, leading a pair of scoring drives that gave Utah a brief lead.

Down 7-0 after UNC’s Brandon Tate returned the game’s opening kickoff 96 yards for a score, the Utes finally got even early in the second quarter, and Johnson did most of the work himself. The sophomore quarterback ignited the scoring drive with a 19-yard scamper and quickly marched the Utes down the field, keeping the Tar Heel defense off-balance with a combination of keepers and short passes.

Facing a 2nd-and-6 from the UNC 17, Johnson escaped a busted play and ran 15 yards before being pushed out of bounds. One play later, he scored his sixth rushing touchdown of the season, spinning out of one tackle and diving into the end zone as the Utes tied the game at seven. On that one drive alone, Johnson piled up 97 yards of total offense, completing all five of his passes for 53 yards and rushing for 44 on the ground.

Johnson did more of the same on Utah’s opening drive of the second half, leading another 11-play drive, this time for 77 yards, going 6-for-6 in the air for 61 yards. He showed poise and patience when the Utes got into the red zone, getting out of the pocket on a third down and finding Travis LaTendresse for a 15-yard touchdown pass that put the Utes on top for the first time all day.

“Utah, to their credit, came out with a different scheme in the second half, and it took a while to get adjusted to that,” UNC head coach John Bunting said. “It’s a difficult team to play against, but our kids did a terrific job of adjusting.”

But the lead was short-lived, as the Ute offense crumbled under the increased pressure of the North Carolina front seven. The Tar Heels forced four total fumbles and sacked Johnson four times en route to their second big victory in a row after dropping their first two games of the season.

“Some people overlook us, but we have so much talent and depth on this defense,” junior linebacker Larry Edwards said. “We come out there and force turnovers and make some big plays that get us in good position. That’s what we do.”

Johnson finished the game with a career-high 98 rushing yards on 22 carries while completing 22 of 34 passes for 211 yards. But it was the opposing quarterback, Baker, whose team came out on top, as the first-year starter lit up the Utah secondary for a handful of big plays in the second half.

“I got frustrated (in the first half), and you can’t do that as a quarterback,” Baker said. “Sometimes you make bad throws, and in the first half I made a couple of bad throws. In the second half, I pulled it together.”

The Utes return to action Saturday at Colorado State. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.

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