Thursday, October 17, 2013. UNC had just lost in an excruciating fashion to Miami to fall to 1-5 on the season. The weekend talking heads described the Tar Heels, pegged as contenders in the ACC's Coastal Division, as one of the year's biggest disappointments, despite the brutal schedule and significant injuries. The season was on the brink and it was going to take a massive turnaround to salvage anything from that horrible start.
Fast forward to Saturday, December 28, 2013. A mere 71 days later and Carolina easily dispatched Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl to finish the year 7-6, having gone 6-1 over the final seven games. Five of UNC's seven wins this season were over bowl teams or teams with winning records (as opposed to the Bearcats, who won nine games but beat only one team with a winning record), while the six losses came to teams with a combined 54-22 record. Despite their .500 record going in, UNC was favored over Cincinnati going into the bowl game and played like the favorite, racing out to a 29-3 lead before notching a 39-17 win. The Tar Heels played with purpose and passion and did not appear to be happy with just making the game after the 1-5 start. Carolina scored on offense, defense, and special teams and took the drama out of the game early.
Here is the "For all the Saddlebreds" edition of the GBU Report:
Ryan Switzer: The Belk Bowl MVP tied an NCAA record with his fifth punt return on the season, breaking both the school's career record which had been held by some guy named Charlie Justice. And don't forget, this guy is a freshman.
T.J. Logan: Speaking of freshmen, in reviewing UNC's 1-5 start, it is important to remember Logan was hurt early in the season. Logan rushed for 77 yards and added a 78-yard kickoff return of his own on the way to 201 all-purpose yards.
Tommy Hibbard: Despite what the All-ACC voters said, Hibbard again showed he was among the league's best punters, averaging over 44 yards per kick and putting three of his four punts inside the 20.
Defensive Pressure: Carolina did exactly what they were supposed to do against the Bearcats' decimated offensive line - make short work of them. The Tar Heel front forced five sacks against a team that had only allowed 12 all season, and tackled QB Brandon Kay in the end zone for a safety. The other part of the equation in UNC's second-half turnaround was when the defense finally started clicking, as evidenced in the bowl game.
Tre Boston: I have had a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with Boston over his UNC career, but he made his final game as a Tar Heel count. Due to injuries Boston started the game at linebacker but moved back to the defensive backfield and made a nifty interception on a tip drill, his fifth of the season. Boston finishes his career third on UNC's all-time interceptions list.
4th Quarter Drive: Carolina was impressive on its 4th quarter drive that started at their own 3 yard-line and ate up over nine minutes of clock on 15 plays before settling for a 40-yard field goal that provided the final margin.
Thomas Moore: As good as UNC was down the stretch, poor Thomas Moore really struggled over the last 6-7 games. After having his streak of nearly 70 consecutive PATs broken versus NCSU, Moore had a difficult time in both extra points and field goals, and went the entire season never making a field goal longer than 40 yards. The Tar Heels are fortunate that never cost them a game but is also likely a reason why Larry Fedora was willing to go for a number of 4th downs this year.
Injuries: Injuries have plagued UNC this year, so it was fitting the final game of the season was no different. The Tar Heels were so depleted at linebacker that redshirt freshman Nathan Staub got his first start and Tre Boston had to move in from safety to linebacker to start the game. Then there were a number of nicks and dings during the game, and most notably was the broken leg suffered by James Hurst in his final game as a Tar Heel. Hurst is a high draft prospect at left tackle and hopefully his draft preparations will not be derailed too much by this injury.
All in all, Carolina ended the season exactly how they needed to - with a decisive win over a nine-win team. The mental difference between 7-6 and 6-7, between finishing with a winning record and a losing record, is huge headed into the off-season. Plus the big win helps erase some of the sting of the Duke loss, the only blemish over the last seven games (and a game UNC could have won). With most of its offensive firepower returning, if UNC can shore up the defense, there is no reason to think expectations of contending for the Coastal Division are once again in the cards for the Tar Heels in 2014.