With just more than 9 minutes remaining Wednesday night in the Holiday Bowl, it all was there for North Carolina.

The Tar Heels, already ahead by a touchdown, were driving. Drake Maye had just connected with D.J. Jones for a 1st down to the Oregon 10, and on 1st-and-goal, North Carolina’s win probability was a staggering 92.7%. Even after Oregon held and forced a Noah Burnette field goal, the Tar Heels led by 10 and their win probability stood at 89.3%. A memorable win to close a surprisingly successful season was within reach and with it, momentum to carry into the offseason and a 2023 that likely will saddle the Tar Heels with championship aspirations and expectations.

For 50-plus minutes, North Carolina deserved to win, too.

Maye showed why he will be a Heisman candidate during 2023, throwing for 206 yards and 3 touchdowns and making the types of throws in tight coverage only a future NFL quarterback can make.

The Tar Heels defense, much maligned all season, looked the part of a unit that had come together and made the most of additional bowl practices. Through 3-plus quarters, the Tar Heels surrendered less than 300 yards to an explosive Oregon offense, stifling the Ducks on 3rd down and forcing a turnover. And playing without star wide receiver Josh Downs, North Carolina’s younger players stepped up, including freshman Kobe Paysour, who separated himself and found paydirt on this 49-yard rope from Maye to give North Carolina the lead just before halftime. Paysour would finish the game with 7 receptions for 98 yards, a Downs-like performance that he can build on this spring.

The only problem for North Carolina? Football games aren’t won in 50 great minutes.

Mack Brown’s team wilted during the final 10 minutes, surrendering touchdowns to 15th-ranked Oregon on the Ducks’ final 2 possessions and falling 28-27, missing out on a signature win and instead, authoring what is becoming a signature type of Carolina defeat. Too often under Brown, version 2.0, the Tar Heels either can’t close out a big victory or can’t capitalize on a big opportunity.

A Heisman candidate quarterback and top-10 ranking to begin the 2021 season?

Mack and North Carolina spoil it, losing the opener at Virginia Tech and never truly recovering, finishing 6-7. A heartbreaking, last-minute loss at rival NC State stands out as particularly painful evidence of North Carolina’s inability to close.

A top-15 College Football Playoff ranking during November with multiple home games to close the 2022 season and an outside shot at the playoff? Lose 4 straight to finish the year, turning an 9-1 start into an 9-5 finish. Throw in another brutal loss to NC State — this time in 2 overtimes — and you begin to get a sense of the shape of things in Chapel Hill.

There’s no question Brown’s return brought excitement back to North Carolina football. Season ticket sales skyrocketed. Recruiting boomed and even after Wednesday night’s collapse, the Tar Heels will remain among the top 15 in the 247 Talent Composite nationally in 2023, no worse than the 3rd-most talented team in the ACC, behind Clemson and Miami.

But this is a bottom-line business, and at some point, you have to win big games. You can’t let an enigmatic journeyman like Bo Nix engineer 2 touchdown drives during the final 7 minutes, including a winning throw on 4th-and-2.

You can’t get gashed, repeatedly, in the run game against teams with equitable talent.

You can’t continue to struggle to establish the run, leaving a supremely talented quarterback, whether it is Sam Howell or Drake Maye, to win games with his arm alone. North Carolina’s inability to run the ball was costly all season, but Wednesday night, when the Tar Heels averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, it was fatal, as the Tar Heels couldn’t trust the run game on a late field-goal drive, meaning they left plenty of clock for Nix to work with when Oregon got the football back, trailing by just 6 points.

Stop the run game. Exploit average quarterbacks with your defensive scheme. Establish balance offensively. Compete on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

These are all foundational things a program must do to be successful long-term. Mack Brown 2.0? They aren’t doing these things consistently enough. The end result is flashes of brilliance colored by spectacular flameouts.

Before you write that off as melodrama, consider this: During 2020, North Carolina defeated 3 ranked teams and was competitive in 2 losses to teams among the top 5 (Notre Dame, Texas A&M). Since, the Tar Heels are an abysmal 1-6 against ranked foes, with the lone win a 58-55 shootout victory over Wake Forest in 2021. Signs of the progress that complemented the early Mack Brown optimism are gone. Regression and regretful disappointments like Wednesday night now are the norm.

Of course, 2023 will come and with it, the return of Drake Maye and hope. That nasty little side effect of hope — big expectations — will be back, too. Will North Carolina be ready for it? Or will it wilt again, settling for another year of “almost”?

Time will tell, but the Holiday Bowl didn’t give us much reason to expect anything different. Hope will have to do.