- - Saturday, September 17, 2011

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Virginia found a way to win on nearly every stat-sheet category Saturday, and yet still keep victory at arm’s length for most of the day.

Instead it was North Carolina — which racked up fewer yards, first downs, minutes of possession and third-down conversions — that found a way to win 28-17 by taking advantage of scoring opportunities.

“We should have won that game,” U.Va. quarterback Michael Rocco said. “In the first half, we should have come away with more points.”

Instead the Cavaliers missed a field goal, settled for a field goal, failed on a fourth-down conversion, and fumbled the snap, all of which happened in UNC territory.

The Tar Heels finished 4-of-5 in the red zone, as the U.Va. defense struggled to make decisive stops.

On offense, coordinator Bill Lazor said the Wahoos needed more game-changing plays in the air.

“I just think until our passing game takes a step forward, we’re going to be effective, but not enough points,” he said.

Both teams had sophomore quarterbacks in their third game as starters, but the Tar Heels’ Bryn Renner completed 71 percent of his passes, while Rocco converted on 59 percent.

That’s less of a commentary on the quarterbacks than the help they were receiving. The more athletic Tar Heels used a stout offensive line to create time for Renner and holes for running back Giovani Bernard. In addition, UNC’s receivers made impressive sideline catches.

The Wahoos also succeeded on the line, but only Kris Burd (Matoaca) was a consistent receiving target. Matt Snyder (Deep Run) caught the ball five times, but also failed to catch it seven times, including a 1-of-4 mark in the fourth quarter.

Issues with the snap plagued Rocco, as the Cavaliers fumbled one at the end of the first half that was recovered by the Tar Heels. Later, the quarterback tripped over a lineman on a key third-and-8 in the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t all bleak for the Cavaliers (2-1, 0-1 ACC), who had a big game from Burd and running back Kevin Parks, and held their own against an oversized UNC defensive line.

Rocco produced a pair of firsts. He scored his first touchdown as U.Va.’s starting quarterback and threw his first touchdown pass of the season, a 41-yard, third-period hookup with fullback Max Milien.

But the Tar Heels (3-0, 1-0) opened the second half with a back-breaking scoring drive that went 62 yards in four plays.

North Carolina had many start-and-stop drives that didn’t go anywhere, combining with rain to create a disjointed game, but the successful efforts ended in the end zone, while U.Va.’s stalled out in Carolina territory.

“At halftime I looked at the statistics, and it wasn’t one side dominating the other side,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “But you can’t do things like that when you’re playing a good football team.”

It remains a step forward from last year’s 44-10 loss against the Heels, and the Cavaliers won the fourth quarter 7-0, including a fumble recovery in their own territory.

Lazor, though, saw room for improvement in the passing game, and wants Rocco to become the type of quarterback that can make a play anywhere on the field.

“I think in the long haul, what we want to be is a team that can throw it all over the field,” he said. “That’s where we’re headed. I think at times it showed up today, but certainly big plays in a game are critical, and we have to find a way to get more.”

• Read Michael Phillips’ blog at timesdispatch.com

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