Instead, the Tar Heels took a 31-17 victory by finding ways to score touchdowns before they reached the 20-yard line.
UNC did score on a 1-yard run in the second half, but that touchdown was set up by a 40-yard pass completion. And quarterback Matt Baker delivered TD passes of 23 and 43 yards, spoiling Utah's otherwise solid defensive effort.
Those three completions, each coming at a key moment in the last 19 minutes of the game, accounted for 106 of the Heels' 352 total yards.
"It's not so much adjusting, it's making better throws," Baker said. "I pulled it together."
After Brandon Tate returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, UNC managed only a field goal in the first half, settling for a 10-7 lead that Ute coach Kyle Whittingham labeled "a blessing."
The Heels had the ball inside the Ute 30-yard line five times, but could not capitalize with touchdowns.
Utah's Casey Evans and Tim Harris each intercepted a pass that was deflected by an UNC receiver. UNC's Connor Barth missed two field goals, including one after a personal-foul penalty pushed the Heels back. Barth made a 32-yard field goal, but only after the Utes did not allow a first down following UNC's fumble recovery at the Utah 20.
"We were put in some bad positions and came out of it with just a field goal. I'm proud of that," said Ute safety Eric Weddle. "We didn't play as well in the second half."
The Utes actually shut down UNC's running game in the second half, but broke down on some key pass plays - usually on third down.
With the Heels down 14-10 midway through the third quarter, Baker hit Jon Hamlett for 16 yards on third and 8 and found Mike Mason for 12 yards on third and 10. He followed with the 23-yard TD pass to Wallace Wright.
After Weddle's interception return for a touchdown was called back by a roughing-the-passer penalty, Ute cornerback Shaun Harper was beaten on the 40-yard pass to Mason, leading to Barrington Edwards' 1-yard TD run.
After the Utes cut UNC's lead to 24-17, the defense delivered two straight three-plays-and-out series to get the ball back. But after the Heels recovered Quinton Ganther's fumble at the their 49-yard line, Utah's defense collapsed again.
That play - a 43-yard slant pass that Jesse Holley grabbed for a clinching, 43-yard touchdown with 5:11 remaining - bothered Weddle the most.
"Ridiculous," he said, as one of three Utes who missed tackles on the play.
Baker "came up with enough plays and the receivers made enough plays to help us win the ballgame," said UNC coach John Bunting.
Bunting was disappointed with a running game that netted only 85 yards. The Heels' longest run went for only 13 yards. Edwards, who had gained 129 yards the previous week in a win over North Carolina State, was held to 44 yards on 23 carries - counting 12 yards of losses, as Ute defenders such as Steve Fifita, Weddle and Evans penetrated and made tackles.
The Utes actually accounted for more lost yardage in tackling Edwards than they did in sacking Baker, who was caught twice for a total of 9 yards. The Heels regularly picked up Weddle and Evans on the blitzes that the Utes utilize so much, although the safeties did manage to hurry Baker into some incompletions.
But one of those blitzes resulted in the roughing-the-passer penalty on Evans, taking away Weddle's touchdown.
North Carolina drove inside the Utah 30-yard line five times in Saturday's first half, but scored only three offensive points.
Utah 7 Missed field goal Matt Baker stopped on 3rd-and-8 scramble
Utah 17 Missed field goal Charlston Gray personal-foul penalty
Utah 24 Interception Casey Evans grabs deflected pass
Utah 15 Field goal Three plays gain 5 yards after fumble recovery
Utah 27 Interception Tim Harris grabs deflected pass