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In an ACC game in everything but name, a reality check for UNC

It has all been sunshine and rainbows for North Carolina in the early days of Mack Brown’s return, miraculous comebacks and forward momentum. Reality came crashing down on the Tar Heels on Friday, as it inevitably would, delivered with brutal efficiency by a nonconference conference opponent that had little interest in furthering any Mack mythology.

North Carolina’s first two opponents may have a higher profile than Wake Forest but neither team was as disciplined, well-coached or physical as the Demon Deacons were Friday. Quarterback Sam Howell, sacked six times and battered several others, nearly authored the third fourth-quarter comeback of his three-game college career but exited the field visibly weary from the extraordinary punishment he absorbed.

The comeback fell short thanks to an odd play call — a run to Michael Carter with the Tar Heels out of timeouts; Carter stepped out of bounds with :01 on the clock, the screen-grab quickly going viral, but the play had already been blown dead — but the 24-18 loss in a game that was a meeting of in-state rivals in everything but the standings showed the gap between a program with a solid foundation and one that’s just getting started on building one.

“We talked about it, we knew it was an issue, we knew we weren’t used to this position to be in, we knew Wake Forest would play really hard, and we still didn’t come out and play like we needed to,” Brown said.

It’s hard to say that anyone but Clemson is a threat in the Atlantic Division, but it isn’t hard to imagine Wake Forest as the second-best in that group, with a playmaking quarterback and big wide receivers and a backfield that has a fastball and a curve and a change-up. That doesn’t include the defense, which kept the Tar Heels from crossing midfield until late in the third quarter while plowing over anyone and anything that got in its way.

Things were so grim for North Carolina for much of the game that the only thing the (many) UNC traveling fans had to applaud was an appearance by Wake basketball legend Rodney Rogers. That changed in the fourth quarter when Wake Forest tried to take the air out of the ball and let North Carolina back in the game. The Tar Heels punted or fumbled on their first 11 possessions, then finished field goal-touchdown-touchdown before running out of time at the end.

“We never do it the easy way,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said.

Besides the oddity of the two charter ACC members playing a nonconference game, this result tugged on a number of more recent historical threads. Brown became the eighth out of the past nine Triangle coaches to lose his “first” game against Wake Forest, what has become a ritual “welcome (back in this case) to the ACC” moment. Brown lost his actual first game to the Deacons, too, 29 years ago, but the Tar Heels already have more wins in Brown’s second first season (two) than his first first season (one).

Then there was the Wakeyleaks dimension, Clawson’s continuing revenge against the opposing coaches who made use of the information provided by traitorous Wake Forest broadcaster Tommy Elrod. Wake Forest has run up 98 points in two wins over Louisville since, and Brown’s new staff includes two coaches who were suspended by their employers for their roles, defensive coordinator Jay Bateman (Army) and wide receivers coach Lonnie Galloway (Louisville). Clawson is 3-0 and counting, with both Louisville and Virginia Tech on the schedule this season, albeit with new staffs.

It was the odd kind of game where both teams can walk away having proven something: Wake Forest having demonstrated that it is indeed for real after opening wins over Utah State and Rice; North Carolina showing that its fourth-quarter heroics against South Carolina and Miami were no fluke, but something the Tar Heels can summon when needed, even if it doesn’t offer any guarantee of success. Not falling behind 21-0 in the first place would be a better way to go about that.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.