They saw it, too, in the form of a second-straight ACC win that vaulted UNC (4-4, 2-2 ACC) toward the top of a middling Coastal Division. The chasm that, just two weeks prior, separated UNC from the postseason had closed. It did so Saturday with a pinch of improvement, a splash of good fortune and a pint of the bizarre.
“This is the craziest game I’ve ever been involved in,” freshman linebacker Cayson Collins said.
The improvement? It came, in no small measure, by way of UNC’s beleaguered defense. Butchered tackles and botched assignments fueled a first-quarter, 14-point splurge for Virginia (4-4, 2-2 ACC) on the strength of quarterback Greyson Lambert’s arm and the legs of tailback Kevin Parks, North Carolina’s high school record-holder for career rushing yards.
Then came the clamps, the snarl, that Fedora has long sought but rarely found. The Tar Heels forced three-and-outs. They held Lambert to 40 yards passing in the second half. The defense didn’t contain the run so much as they stopped it from overflowing, to the tune of 159 digestible yards. This was only a week after the Tar Heels allowed 362 yards on the ground to Georgia Tech. This was improvement.
The good fortune? There he is, the very embodiment of it: freshman defensive tackle Nazair Jones, 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, who had the hands to play tight end at Roanoke Rapids High School in North Carolina but never, not once, caught an interception. And there he is, with UVa. ahead 27-21 and nearing midfield, its hands so close to UNC’s jugular, sniffing out a screen play before it comes.
“I knew something was up,” Jones said. “I gotta smell a rat.”
His olfactory senses didn’t betray him. Lambert’s lazy pass nestled into the hands of Jones, who rumbled 20 yards down the near sideline to set up UNC’s go-ahead touchdown. Jones thought he was dreaming, he said. He didn’t expect this, a game-changing pick, much less on this UNC defense known more for charity than stinginess.
“It’s good for our coaches to let them know that we can make plays,” Jones said, “and that we can bear down when we need to.”
The bizarre? It came out of the ordinary. Marquise Williams had, at this juncture, absorbed the sharpest of blows from UVa.’s stout defensive line — one of the nation’s finest, he said — and had given it right back. Late in the first quarter, with UNC’s offense listing amid a 14-0 hole, Williams grabbed a defibrillator, faked a handoff to T.J. Logan and rattled off a 52-yard touchdown run to break Ronald Curry’s school record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. He had connected with walk-on wide receiver Mack Hollins on two long touchdowns, one 57 yards, the other 62, to give Hollins a team-leading seven touchdown grabs. Williams was, for the second straight week, leading UNC to a game-winning drive with little more than four minutes left.
Then UVa. defensive end Eli Harold sacked him. Williams’ helmet slipped off his head. UNC faced third-and-15. The rulebook said Williams must leave for a play, and so he did. In his stead came Mitch Trubisky, the second half of a presumed-dead UNC quarterback tandem, but now the lifeblood of the Tar Heels’ precarious midseason fate. And he found, on his only play of the afternoon, a wide-open T.J. Thorpe for a 16-yard score.
“I’m happy with what we’ve been doing with Mitch,” Fedora said of his oft-criticized strategy of tapping Trubisky to lead a given drive. “I know a lot of people think we’re idiots, but I think it paid off for him in this situation.”
“I couldn’t tell you how hard it was,” Trubisky said after the game. “I didn’t even think about it. I saw his helmet come off, I just ran in, got the play and threw a touchdown. It was crazy.”
Even crazier? A surreptitious onside kick after UNC had taken the lead with 4:05 to play. But there was more to it. Ron West, the team’s co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, kept nudging Fedora. “It’s there,” he’d say. He meant an onside kick. He saw UVa.’s front line retreat with a touch too much haste, enough to sneak in and recover a dribbler. It was there.
“If it was 50-50 in my head, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” Fedora said, “but I really felt confident that they would execute it.”
Word of the sneak attack spread around the sideline after Trubisky connected with Thorpe. “Lord,” Jones said to anyone who would listen, “please get the ball back.” Weiler’s clinical toe poke belied the imprecision of his two missed field goals. The ball bounced into the hands of Hollins, as if the universe had, at least for one afternoon, ordained him as its center. The win would be UNC’s four minutes later, once UVa. exchanged holiday gifts two months early.
So it was, on this turbulent afternoon beneath a sublime autumnal sky, that UNC managed to turn the bleak into the bright, the absurd into the advantageous. They felt, for the second straight week, not the specter of an academic scandal or the weight of unfulfilled preseason promise.
They felt reason to believe.
“We’re still in it,” Williams said. “We’re going to keep fighting.”
With wheels, albeit accompanied by a deafening screech, on the tracks.