For the North Carolina football team, Saturday was poetic justice.
Last year, the Tar Heels faced a 21-point deficit against Wake Forest only to see a second half comeback attempt slip out of their fingers. This time though, they finished the job against the Demon Deacons, scoring 28 consecutive points in the fourth quarter to pull off a 59-53 victory.
But this win was much more than an act of vengeance. It reaffirmed North Carolina's dominance over its in-state competition that head coach Mack Brown became accustomed to in his first stint at UNC.
“I gotta give these kids credit,” Brown said. “They’ve played four rival teams in four straight weeks for the first time in school history, and they’ve beaten the three in-state rivals. That’s a huge accomplishment at this school and in this league.”
Brown and the Tar Heels had their way against Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest during his first tenure in Chapel Hill. Brown won his last eight against the Blue Devils and the Demon Deacons, and his last five matchups with N.C. State before departing for Texas.
That impressive run has continued during his second go-around in Chapel Hill, compiling a 5-1 record against those very same teams. While UNC has dropped a pair of disappointing losses this year, it now boasts an undefeated record against its three in-state rivals and currently has a 6-2 record overall.
Saturday's win, more than the five before it, felt different.
The Tar Heels found themselves in an early hole – a game script eerily similar to both of their defeats. And the team lacked control of the game until the fourth quarter, when Javonte Williams jogged into the end zone and gave the team a 14-point lead in the final minutes — they clawed their way back.
And just like they did against Florida State and Virginia, they made it a one possession game.
But the team wasn't ready to have another let-down loss.
“We had so many opportunities to quit today," sophomore quarterback Sam Howell said. “We were down by 21 points in the second half. I think a lot of teams would’ve just quit and just folded over and tried to get the game over with. But we just kept fighting back on both sides of the ball.”
As impressive as Howell and North Carolina's barrage of offensive weapons have been in each of the Tar Heels' three rivalry wins this season, it was UNC's oft struggling defense that stepped to the plate and allowed them to come back on Saturday.
“As a defense, that’s what you want and we know you want to put the game on your players, you want to put the game on your defense,” senior cornerback Patrice Rene said. “We strive to go in every week like that.”
There’s no doubt it was an ugly game for co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s defense. The unit surrendered over 600 yard of offense, including an abysmal 429 yards through the air. But the Tar Heels made stops when it was needed the most, giving their offense a chance to make the comeback.
“We definitely go out there with the extra chip on our shoulder when you see the offense going crazy,” Rene said. “We have to hold our part of the bargain up.”
The defense has had its struggles this year, but to rise up when the pressure is at its highest bodes well for the future of the program. If these in-state results remain positive, Brown will be able to recruit the talent he needs to establish the type of defense he thrived with in his best years at UNC.
Prior to his arrival, the Tar Heels dropped their last three against Duke, four of the last five against N.C. State and was trading wins with the Demon Deacons. Now, they are the team to beat in North Carolina.
Despite the two losses to sub-.500 teams, Brow's plan is still in its early phases, but if the trend of consecutive in-state conference victories continues – aligning with the squads of the '90s – UNC could field a team that can content for a top five ranking that lasts more than a week.
Saturday’s win shows the journey that Tar Heels have gone through to retake control of North Carolina. Beating the team that got the best of you last year in dramatic fashion? Well, that makes it even sweeter.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of a second half comeback by a team.” Brown said.
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