CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Not quite a year after sending them home with a historic whipping, the Utah Utes gave the North Carolina Tar Heels the chance to get even on Saturday by making their own cross-country trip and meeting them in front of 50,000 fans at baby-blue Kenan Stadium, some 2,100 miles from home.
Whether it was the long trip, the unfamiliar surroundings or simply a much improved opponent, the Utes showed little of the ferocity or efficiency that made them such a devastating force last season. They allowed the Tar Heels to return the opening kickoff for a touchdown, committed five turnovers and 12 penalties - one of them negated an interception return for a touchdown - and gave up just enough big plays in the passing game to suffer a 31-17 loss, their worst in nearly three years.
"You're never going to win a game when you commit five turnovers," Ute quarterback Brian Johnson said.
Yet Johnson committed four of them, one by interception and three others by fumble - including two in the final eight minutes that combined with another by running back Quinton Ganther to ruin any potential comeback.
The 3-2 Utes have lost both their road games this season, and they face another at Colorado State next weekend.
"Right now, we're just a good football team," coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Until we win a tough game on the road, that's all we're going to be, is a good football team. That's all we are."
The Tar Heels, however, looked much better than they did in allowing a record 669 yards in a 46-16 loss in Salt Lake City last year.
Although they only occasionally hurt the Utes offensively, they did so with big gains while the defense made play after play after play - and they rejoiced in exacting revenge and getting off to their best start in five years.
"They played their hearts out," North Carolina coach John Bunting said.
The Utes certainly had opportunities, notably when they moved inside the Tar Heel 30-yard line with about eight minutes left, trailing by a touchdown.
But UNC's Larry Edwards stripped Johnson of the ball as he scrambled, and the Tar Heels recovered.
Then, on the first play of Utah's next possession, Ganther fumbled at the end of a 17-yard run - linebacker Tommy Richardson recovered both of those fumbles for North Carolina. Three plays later, UNC's Matt Baker found receiver Jesse Holley with a quick slant pass that Holley turned into a 43-yard touchdown to give the Heels a 31-17 lead that the Utes could never threaten.
"We had our chances," Whittingham said.
The Utes' hopes were finally dashed for good when Johnson fumbled again on the first play of their next possession, allowing the Heels to mostly run out the clock.
"Basically, they just did a good job of making plays," Johnson said. "They're a very fast, very athletic defense. We knew that coming in. But we just have to be better on offense. It was a poor performance."
The Utes had a hard time establishing the running game, especially with Ganther on the sideline for the first three series for undisclosed disciplinary reasons.
But while Whittingham called the 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by UNC's Brandon Tate "ridiculous," the Utes evened the score on Johnson's touchdown run early in the second quarter. They survived the first half well - by virtue of two interceptions and two missed field-goal attempts that held the Heels to only three points on five trips inside the Utah 30-yard line.
"That was a blessing," Whittingham said. "As poorly as we played, we were only down 10-7."
Then, everything went south.
Though the Utes held the Tar Heels to 85 rushing yards on 39 carries and took a 14-10 lead on a touchdown pass from Johnson to receiver Travis LaTendresse, the inconsistent Baker hit them with just enough long pass plays to kill them.
First, he found receiver Wallace Wright for a 23-yard score past a fallen Ryan Smith to retake the lead at 17-14. Then, after Eric Weddle's interception return for a touchdown was negated by a roughing-the-passer penalty on fellow safety Casey Evans, he found Mike Mason with a 40-yard pass down the left sideline to the Utah 1.
That set up another touchdown, and he struck again when Holly weaved his way past three Utah tacklers for the final score. Without those three plays, Baker was just 13-for-28 passing for 161 yards and two interceptions.
"I was pretty confident the defense was going to do good things this year, and they played great," Baker said. "Hats off to them, they won this game for us."
And, unlike last season, lost it for the Utes.
Utes drown in mistakes
IN SHORT - The Utes commit five turnovers and waste every opportunity the Tar Heels give them in a 31-17 loss to North Carolina at Kenan Stadium.
KEY STAT - The Utes committed 12 penalties for 101 yards.
KEY MOMENT - Utah's Eric Weddle returns an interception about 35 yards for a touchdown that would have given the Utes a lead late in the third quarter, but a roughing-the-passer penalty by Casey Evans negates the play.