WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – For weeks, UNC football head coach Mack Brown refused to entertain conversation about the ACC Championship Game.
It was only until after Saturday night's 36-34 victory over Wake Forest, with the ACC Coastal Division trophy firmly secured in his hands, that Brown felt he could loosen up a little.
"I've talked to (the team) for a couple of weeks about not talking about the Coastal," Brown said. "I didn't want to back in. I didn't want somebody to have to lose. I didn't want them to be looking at somebody losing. I wanted us to win, and the guys did that."
With the gritty road win, the Tar Heels improved to 6-0 on the road this year. That's a stark contrast to Brown's first three seasons with UNC, in which the team had a combined 5-10 record on the road. After being winless away from Kenan Stadium last season, the veteran leaders on the team knew something had to change.
"It's something that we highlighted during the offseason — that we've been horrible on the road," junior linebacker Cedric Gray said. "I think it's something that we put a premium on, and it's something that we've executed on game day."
That perfect record came from less-than-perfect play, however. This season, UNC has beaten its away opponents by an average of 3.3 points. As has been the case with all of its road games, UNC needed some impactful late-game moments to get out of Truist Field with the victory.
"These guys just keep finding a way to win, and that's that's why I'm so impressed with them," Brown said. "They're there doing the things they need to do to find ways to win and they're not panicking."
UNC went up 14-0 early in the first quarter, but the Wake Forest offense led by redshirt junior quarterback Sam Hartman rallied back to keep the game competitive. A missed extra point attempt by UNC sophomore kicker Noah Burnette and failed two-point conversion attempts by both teams resulted in the Tar Heels and Demon Deacons trading slim leads throughout the second half.
Leading 34-33 with less than five minutes remaining in the game, Wake Forest pushed into UNC territory, looking for a score to finally pull away from the Tar Heels. Instead, UNC safety Cam'Ron Kelly intercepted a Hartman pass across the middle and returned it to the Wake Forest 48-yard line.
"I was just keying off the quarterback's eyes and I'd seen a dig developing," Kelly said. "(Hartman) looked down the dig the whole time, and I just undercut it."
On the ensuing UNC drive, Burnette nailed a 33-yard field goal to put UNC back on top. The UNC defense forced a turnover on downs in Wake Forest's last-ditch effort to stage a comeback, and then the Tar Heels ran down the clock to secure the victory.
Brown said moments like these were a big reason why he came back to North Carolina. It's rare for UNC to have this good a record through 10 games. In fact, the feat has been accomplished just four times since 1970 — 1972, 1980, 1997 and 2015.
Brown thinks the team hasn't come close to reaching its full potential. Before the Tar Heels can look forward to the ACC Championship on Dec. 3, Brown said his players are eager to get back to the drawing board before their matchup Saturday against Georgia Tech.
"The best thing is when you're winning and you're making a lot of mistakes," Brown said. "They're so much easier to coach because they're gonna be so motivated tomorrow to start working on Georgia Tech and get better. And that's the fun thing about this team."
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