It’s the phrase that comes from the North Carolina football sideline to remind its players to always be locked in.
But in Saturday night’s 59-39 win over Virginia – a contest that saw the Tar Heels rack up 699 yards of total offense – perhaps the short motto is better served as a plea to you, the reader.
If you left your comfy seat on a recliner to grab a snack in the first quarter, you likely missed some part of the team’s eight-play, three-score bonanza that helped establish an early 21-7 lead.
If you decided to take a moment to toast the offensive display, it’s probable you needed some catching up to figure out how a Sam Howell goal line interception led to 14 straight Cavalier points and a halftime Tar Heel deficit in a game they seemed destined to run away with.
Or maybe, you took a second to fathom how a team with ACC title aspirations was suddenly 30 minutes away from losing to a rivalry foe for the fifth consecutive year and staring a 1-2 start dead in the eye.
If that was the case, you were probably left scratching your head when the Tar Heels came out with a renewed sense of urgency after the break to immediately stretch the lead to ten en route to scoring on every drive in the second half, turning the once tense battle back into a blowout.
“There are hard lessons that are taught in games that can’t be taught in practice,” head coach Mack Brown said. “It’s probably the best thing that could have happened to us.”
On a night when the Tar Heel defense seemed to have little to no answers for Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong — who finished with a school record of 554 yards – Howell matched almost every throw and even chipped in a career-high 112 yards on the ground.
After torching Virginia for 796 yards and eight touchdowns over the last two years, Howell upped the ante with a five-score effort on Saturday night.
The 4,000-yard quartet that so frequently aided Howell in past seasons may have been missing, but instead, a bevy of new weapons were at his disposal. After failing to establish rhythm in his first two starts as a Tar Heel, graduate transfer running back Ty Chandler exploded for 198 rushing yards with two scores. Leading the receiving corps, sophomore receiver Josh Downs rose to the occasion with 203 yards and showed an ability to make big plays in a flash.
Again, "Don't blink."
“We knew it was only a matter of time until the world knew who Josh Downs was," Howell said. "He’s always open.”
Before the game, Downs could feel a big night was on the horizon. Not only because of the team’s previous track record against the Virginia secondary, but because of some friendly trash talk between one of his former teammates.
Which one? The self-described “big brother” that still makes his presence to the younger receivers felt.
“Dyami (Brown) came up to me and he basically said I wasn’t going to beat his school record against Virginia, and I was like ‘Oh, we’re going to see about that.’” Downs said. “I fell a little short, but it is what it is, we got the win.”
Despite Virginia’s hot start to the year, this UNC team knows there are still tougher tests that lie ahead. After two games against Georgia Tech and Duke, the Tar Heels will begin a three-game stretch that includes national powers Miami and Notre Dame, as well as a Florida State team that shocked them in Tallahassee last year.
If the Tar Heels have shown anything throughout the last three seasons, it’s that their involvement in tumultuous contests is unlikely to vanish. But in the team’s first conference win of the season, and one where contributions were made throughout the entire roster, it’s clear the two-word statement is something the team will continue to live by.
“This is a mentally tough football team because they flipped it back and didn't blink," Brown said. "I’ve never been prouder of a team that was way up and got behind and came back and finished the game like they should.”
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