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Thursday January 20th

Unranked UNC upsets No. 9 Wake Forest in 58-55 comeback victory

Graduate student running back Ty Chandler (19) runs the ball for a 50-yard touchdown at the game against Wake Forest on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at Kenan Stadium. The UNC Tar Heels won 58-55.
Buy Photos Graduate student running back Ty Chandler (19) runs the ball for a 50-yard touchdown at the game against Wake Forest on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at Kenan Stadium. The UNC Tar Heels won 58-55.

If there are any lessons to take from the three-year era of head coach Mack Brown and junior quarterback Sam Howell, it’s these: don’t leave the stadium too early, never expect a result and definitely don’t anticipate anything resembling normality.

The Tar Heels just seem to thrive in the absurd. Since 2019, they’ve known nothing else. And if you accepted these rules on Saturday, you might have found yourself with hundreds of others wearing Carolina blue on Chris Smith Field after the unranked Tar Heels took down No. 9 Wake Forest, 58-55. 

Don’t try to make sense of it. It won’t make any. 

“I don’t think many people across the country thought we could beat Wake Forest,” Brown said. “It’ll get them up early in the morning with a smile on their face ready to compete with Pitt.”

UNC came into Saturday’s game off a string of inconsistent performances and disappointments.

Entering the season in the same position Wake Forest was in before the game — as fringe College Football Playoff contenders — expectations were hastily shot down on a Friday night in Blacksburg, Va. If playoff hopes weren’t dead then, then they surely died with ugly losses against Georgia Tech and Florida State. 

But on Saturday, none of that mattered. North Carolina faced a 14-point deficit entering the fourth quarter — against a team with the fifth-best scoring offense in the nation — and found a way to leave the stadium victorious. 

“What we’re saying on the sideline is ‘We’ve been here before,’” Howell said. “There was never a doubt on the sideline, we truly believed we were going to win the game.” 

As is true in the second half of individual games — broadcast graphics about UNC’s 4th quarter scoring have become almost cliché over the last three years — the Tar Heels have found a way to resuscitate themselves in the latter stages of the season since Brown’s return to Chapel Hill.

Last year, for example, UNC won four of its last five games to cement an Orange Bowl berth despite a pair of bad losses to Florida State and Virginia. Sound familiar? Well, it will take some help for the Tar Heels to earn an ACC Championship bid and another shot at the New Year’s Six, but Saturday showed a team with resolve. 

Short of their defensive leader after senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel was disqualified for targeting, first-year linebacker Power Echols stepped into his spot and notched a career-high seven tackles and played a pivotal role in the heart of the Tar Heels defense as they kept the Demon Deacons off the board for three consecutive drives in the fourth quarter. 

“We didn’t play particularly well, but at the right moment we played our best ball,” sophomore linebacker Cedric Gray said. 

The Tar Heels still have a series of tests ahead — facing some of the ACC’s best teams in Pitt and N.C. State in the coming weeks. But with the team just one win away from bowl qualification, Brown should be able to keep his promise to the senior class in qualifying for a third straight bowl game, with a home matchup against Wofford looming.

This season has not met initial expectations. Without a lot of help, UNC won’t be making another New Year’s Six Bowl and the team’s preseason top-10 ranking will ring hollow. But for a program still in its rebuilding phase, games like Saturday’s only point to better days ahead.

“We have great young people on this team that want to win,” Brown said. “This was a special win for our program. Nobody deserves to win more than these young people.”

@zachycrain

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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