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November 10, 2007RALEIGH, N.C. - As North Carolina defensive end Hilee Taylor watched teammate Kendric Burney streaking to the end zone with a fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown, he thought he would get to stay undefeated against N.C. State in his four years as a Tar Heel.
But a short time later, as he sat in an interview room underneath Carter-Finley Stadium, Taylor's eyes were red and watery, the result of learning the hard way what it felt like to lose to the Wolfpack.
While the Tar Heels nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback thanks to a pair of touchdowns off interceptions, it was a fourth-quarter interception from the hands of UNC quarterback T.J. Yates that would doom Carolina in a 31-27 loss to State.
"It hurts when you know you left everything out on the field and still lost," Taylor said.
In addition to snapping Carolina's three-game winning streak against the Wolfpack, the loss also meant the Tar Heel seniors' dream of winning out and becoming bowl eligible was put to rest in heartbreaking fashion.
The impact of that was clear on the faces of seniors Taylor and Kentwan Balmer after the game, though neither was ready to concede the season.
"It's not even about that now," Balmer said. "I'm just so proud of how my team played today. We fought and took the lead and that says a lot about where this team is headed."
Yates' final interception came when State defensive end Willie Young hit his arm and the ball floated into the hands of defensive tackle DeMario Pressley with less than six minutes to go, setting up a one-yard touchdown run by Jamelle Eugene.
Carolina made one last comeback scramble in the final two minutes but couldn't score on four chances from the N.C. State 7-yard line in the final seconds.
"It's real tough," Yates said. "We definitely need to be able to convert at the end of the game from seven yards away."
Eugene's touchdown was the only score of the second half for N.C. State, and it almost didn't happen.
But UNC was offsides on a third-and-goal stop at the one-yard line, giving the Wolfpack another chance to get in the end zone instead of settling for a game-tying field goal.
Carolina, which came in giving up an average of 24.7 points per game, surrendered 24 in the first half alone to State, quickly falling into a 17-0 hole early as the Pack amassed 291 yards of first-half offense.
"The long and the short of it is we played very, very poorly in the first half," UNC coach Butch Davis said.
By early in the second quarter, the Tar Heels looked to be in deep trouble, already down 17 points with the Wolfpack driving.
But then freshman cornerback Charles Brown created a potential 14-point swing when he intercepted State quarterback Daniel Evans and returned the ball 92 yards for a touchdown to make the score 17-7.
It was the third longest interception return for touchdown in school history, and the Tar Heels weren't done scoring on defense.
Burney's 76-yard interception return in the fourth quarter marked the first time UNC had returned two picks for scores in the same game since a 1994 contest against Tulane, and it gave Carolina a 27-24 lead.
"Fortunately for us, two young kids made two great plays," Davis said. "That compensated for the fact that we had a very bad day offensively."
Carolina's running game was atrocious, gaining just 12 yards on 20 carries against a Wolfpack defense that came into the game as the ACC's worst against the run.
Compounding matters was the fact that UNC was 2 of 14 on third-down conversions.
Arguably Carolina's best offensive play of the day was rooted in trickery.
Yates handed off to fullback Bobby Rome, who tossed a 50-yard touchdown strike to Brandon Tate to pull the Tar Heels within a touchdown.
During the comeback stretch, UNC's defense finally stiffened, but the Pack had done plenty of damage in the first half, mostly thanks to Eugene, who set career highs with 159 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
"Eugene is like the little engine that could," Pressley said. "He won't stop. Ever."