For weeks, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora has stressed the importance of making a game-changing play in the special teams. Only then, he said, would UNC set on the path of becoming a good football team.
UNC tight end Eric Ebron led the Tar Heels with nine catches for 70 yards in the 27-19 win against N.C. State.
During the Tar Heels’ 27-19 win at N.C. State, he finally got one. With N.C. State holding a 10-7 lead late in the first quarter, the Wolfpack attempted a fake punt on fourth-and-eight. The upback took the snap and tried to run around the left side, but freshman Desmond Lawrence snuffed it out for a one-yard loss.
UNC took over at the Wolfpack’s 29-yard line, and four plays later Bryn Renner reached the end zone on a one-yard touchdown run. It all fell into place from there, as UNC took a 14-10 lead and seized control of the contest.
“It was huge,” offensive lineman James Hurst said about the stop on the fake punt. “We needed a big play to get us back in it. They went up 10-0, and we weren’t in a good spot. Our punt team made a big play and stopped them, and we were able to capitalize on it. It was really exciting for us to get a lot of momentum to get back into the game.”
The fourth-down stop symbolizes more than the Tar Heels’ ability to make a big play. It proved that UNC has finally developed the mental toughness and resiliency that are required to turn around a season that started 1-5.
The beginning of the rivalry game couldn’t have started much worse for the Tar Heels. On the second play of the game, Renner threw an interception at UNC’s own 24-yard line. It took just four plays for the Wolfpack to capitalize on the opportunity and grab an early 7-0 lead.
Disaster nearly struck on the first play of the ensuing drive, when Eric Ebron fumbled a handoff. He recovered it, but UNC lost nine yards and was eventually forced to punt from inside its own 10. When the Wolfpack got the ball, quarterback Brandon Mitchell charged down the field and pushed N.C. State’s lead to 10 on a Niklas Sade field goal.
The tumultuous first eight minutes could have snowballed out of control for the Tar Heels, but quarterback Marquise Williams said UNC never lost confidence.
“You usually see a lot of guys who are down, but we were up. We were ready to go,” Williams said. “There’s always adversity in a football game, so we had to come back and start a drive.”
Cornerback Tim Scott had one of UNC's two interceptions in the second half.
Williams helped keep UNC alive by commanding a convincing touchdown drive on the Tar Heels’ third series of the game — his first on the field. The Tar Heels picked up four first downs and got onto the board on a two-yard pass from Williams to Quinshad Davis.
UNC again proved resilient when N.C. State tacked on a pair of field goals to reclaim a 16-14 lead in the second quarter. Just as the Wolfpack was gaining life, a trick play swung momentum back to the Tar Heels. Freshman Ryan Switzer took a backwards pass along the sideline before stopping and heaving it downfield to Davis for a 59-yard touchdown. The play put UNC on top 21-16, and the Tar Heels never trailed again.
“We had talked about going into this game what was going to happen. Whether we went up or down, there were going to be a lot of ups and downs in the game,” Fedora said. “We knew it didn’t matter. If we went up or down, just play the same way with the same emotion, same enthusiasm and same energy. If you watched our guys — we were down 10 in the beginning and not playing very well, but nobody was down. They just kept playing.”
Ever since UNC’s loss to East Carolina, the Tar Heels’ mental fortitude has been openly questioned. The common narrative was that UNC wasn’t tough enough to overcome adversity and make the big plays to win tight games.
UNC didn’t play its best game against N.C. State. There were costly penalties in crucial situations. The Tar Heel offense managed just six second-half points and converted only five of its 15 third downs.
But, the Tar Heels continually made big plays in difficult situations. A.J. Blue ran for 10 yards late in the fourth quarter to convert a third-and-nine, essentially sealing the victory for UNC. When UNC’s offense stalled in the second half, the defense answered the bell with two interceptions and only three points allowed.
No, it wasn’t a tremendous effort by UNC, but it was a tough one.
“We were average again today. We had pre- and post-snap penalties. We didn’t execute on third downs. But, we came out with the win, and we kept fighting,” Blue said. “We were resilient. We didn’t give up when we were down 10-0. We came back and played our (butts) off.”