CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Football games sometimes can resemble tennis matches in their flow of play, with each team generally holding serve but the winner finding a way to pounce on the break points when available.
That was the case on a sun-splashed Saturday at Kenan Stadium, where the Gophers traveled in hopes of upsetting No. 20 North Carolina. Instead, they left on the losing end of a 31-13 score because they couldn't hold serve in some key moments and failed to take advantage of the few break points the Tar Heels offered.
"I do not feel we played our best football at all," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "We had plenty of opportunities. … People open downfield, dropped balls, tipped balls, balls that were inaccurate. We also missed explosive plays, and we were still in the game."
Yes, the Gophers were in the game, trailing 21-13 in the third quarter, but the problem was they were always at least one break behind North Carolina, which owned the key moments. The Tar Heels scored touchdowns, four of them. The Gophers managed one.
That started early. The Tar Heels took a 7-0 lead on their first possession when Drake Maye hit Nate McCollum for a 46-yard touchdown pass, taking advantage of a blown coverage in the Minnesota secondary.
Just as it appeared the Gophers would answer with a TD of their own by driving to the North Carolina 25, Athan Kaliakmanis threw behind tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, who tried to tip the ball to himself. It ended up in the hands of Tar Heels defensive back Power Echols for an interception.
North Carolina cashed that break of serve in for a second touchdown and 14-0 lead as another blown coverage enabled tight end Kamari Morales to sprint all alone down the middle of the field for a 55-yard gain to the Gophers 1. Omarion Hampton's 1-yard TD run put the Gophers in a two-touchdown hole.
"The word of the year is 'poise,' and at times I think we lost our poise,'' Gophers defensive end Danny Striggow said.
For a stretch in the second quarter, the Gophers appeared ready to break North Carolina's serve when Maye threw interceptions on back-to-back possessions. The Gophers, though, gained only a 23-yard field goal from the takeaways.
When the Gophers pulled within 21-13 on Dragan Kesich's 45-yard field goal on the first possession of the third quarter and the Minnesota defense forced a Tar Heels punt, the door for an upset seemed to be opening. Then, a combination of cramps on an 85-degree day and another Gophers turnover put North Carolina back in control.
Both Kaliakmanis and running back Darius Taylor suffered cramps and briefly left the game during a drive in which the Gophers reached the North Carolina 34. With Kaliakmanis on the sideline, backup QB Cole Kramer threw an errant pass on first down that defensive back Armani Chatman easily intercepted in the end zone.
The issue with cramps, which also included cornerback Justin Walley, displeased Fleck.
"I used to able to say things like, 'That's inexcusable,' and stuff like that,'' Fleck said. "… We can't be cramping up. There's a reason why we prepare the way we prepare and have to prepare the way we have to prepare. And if we don't prepare that way, that's what happens. So, it's unfortunate because that ultimately falls on me.''
Kaliakmanis, who struggled with accuracy throughout the game and completed only 11 of 29 passes for 133 yards, pointed the blame at himself, not cramps.
"I've just got to hydrate better," he said. "Cramps, that really doesn't matter. … I was playing bad regardless."
Kaliakmanis wasn't alone in that regard on an afternoon when the Gophers suffered their first defeat and left their coach looking not for consolation but for improvement.
"Expectations are very different around here,'' Fleck said. "This isn't one of those things where, 'Oh, man, we hung with a top 20 team.' That has nothing to do with it."