With 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter of a one-score game, Michael Carter lined up to the right of Brandon Harris and saw the look.
As two Virginia linebackers inched closer to the line of scrimmage, almost on the backs of the crouching defensive linemen in front of them, the Cavaliers’ defense looked familiar.
The North Carolina football team had practiced against the exact same blitz in Friday’s walkthrough in Kenan Memorial Stadium. When Carter took a handoff during that drill, he attacked the wrong gap.
“Hey, it’s not going to be there,” running backs coach DeAndre Smith told his first-year tailback. “It’s going to be here.”
Now, Carter had a chance to go where Smith wanted him to. Virginia led 10-7 as Harris took the snap and held it to Carter’s stomach while he stared an intentionally unblocked Virginia rusher in the eyes. The quarterback waited until the last moment to finally relinquish the ball to his running back.
With the ball tightly tucked under his left arm, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Carter saw the hole Smith wanted him to hit in Friday’s walkthrough. It was hard to miss — offensive linemen Bentley Spain and Nick Polino had made quick work of the two blitzing linebackers.
“I was like, ‘Oh yeah. To the crib,’” Carter said. “‘This one’s going all the way.’”
Carter went untouched up the left sideline for a 47-yard touchdown. The score put UNC up, 14-10. It was the Tar Heels’ first lead in a game since the third quarter of a Sept. 23 game against Duke.
It wasn’t his first touchdown of the game, either. On UNC’s first third-quarter possession, Carter took a shotgun hand-off to the outside and danced behind the line of scrimmage for a split second. He decided to cut to the inside of the pulling guard in front of him.
“We had some great blocking on the perimeter,” he said. “I had to break an arm tackle. As a running back, that’s an expectation. After that, I saw green grass.”
As a Virginia safety gave chase, Carter tried to look up at the stadium’s jumbotron and use it to maneuver around the defender. He was eventually tackled at Virginia’s 11-yard line after running for 56 yards. He scored two plays later on a one-yard carry up the middle, but he knew he wasn’t off the hook.
“From my family, I’m going to get some backlash for getting caught,” he said after the game. “Because finishing the run is a big deal.”
At this point in the interview, he looked to his brother, Dwayne Carter II, who was waiting in the corner of the room while his little brother finished up with the media. Dwayne acknowledged him with a nod. Had Michael prepared a comeback for the imminent trash talk?
He laughed and shook his head: “I’m not going to have one.”
North Carolina is 1-6 this season and winless in the ACC, but Carter’s performance was one positive to draw from Saturday’s 20-14 loss. His third-quarter rushing total of 127 yards alone would’ve broken his previous career high of 94. He finished with 161 total yards and accounted for almost 63 percent of UNC’s total offensive yardage.
"He made some plays," head coach Larry Fedora said. “So we kept him in there and kept giving him the ball."
Carter, who leads the team in all major rushing categories, has made a name for himself off the field with a joyful personality. Fedora commended his work ethic and attitude, adding that Carter always has a smile on his face. In September, the running back compared his first career game to the NCAA Football Road To Glory video game mode he played in his hometown of Navarre, Fla.
He cites his parents, three siblings and supporters back home as his motivation. How can he be upset, he explains, when he has them? Before every game, he tweets out the same two emojis — a hand with two crossed fingers and a ninja of some sort. He says it’s “for the guys” and politely leaves it at that.
And his explanation for his running prowess on Saturday was just as simple.
“The offensive line and the receivers blocking the perimeter, they did a great job,” he said. “All I do is find open space.”
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