Oh hey Tar Heel defense.
Obviously Virginia's issues on the offensive side of the ball helped the Heels in this respect and UNC was gashed a bit at times by Virginia running back Kevin Parks and the Cavalier passing game in general. The big difference in this game was the defense did provide more than enough stops. The problem for UNC was multiple empty possessions after the defense did its job. UNC forced stops on five different occasions and each of those times the offense failed to produce points. That included two missed field goal attempts. Those missed field goals led to UNC going for it on fourth down at the UVa 29 and failing to convert. As the game progressed it felt more and more like UNC was letting a golden chance to steal a road win away.
The game certainly didn't start that way. UNC went three and out on its first two possessions while Virginia took advantage of more terrible tackling by the Tar Heels to take a 14-0 lead. Virginia carved up the Tar Heel defense for 156 yards on their first two possessions with drives of 66 and 90 yards. UNC finally answered with a Marquise Williams 52-yard touchdown run out of the read option. After forcing a Virginia punt, the Tar Heels used another big play. This time it was Williams finding Mack Hollins for a 57-yard touchdown strike to even the game up at 14-14.
The teams traded punts through the early portions of the second quarter then traded touchdowns. Virginia QB Grayson Lambert hit Parks for a 5-yard touchdown which included more tackling struggles for the Heels. On the next Tar Heel possession, Williams went to Hollins again, laying the ball out in front of the former walk-on receiver who made the grab and cruised into the end zone to tie the game at 21. UNC defense struggled with Virginia on the subsequent possession but stiffened enough to keep the Cavaliers out of the end zone. Virginia made it 24-21 on a field goal then missed a 50-yarder as time expired following a Williams interception on UNC's last possession of the half.
While the first half was characterized by points, the second half was nearly devoid of them. Virginia drove the ball deep into UNC's end on the first possession of the half but Des Lawrence grab an interception off a tipped pass to end the threat. UNC continued to struggle with the opportunities afforded after Virginia made it a six point game on a Ian Frye field goal. On two straight possessions the Heels pinned Virginia deep in their own end. Tommy Hibbard punted to the one and then the two on consecutive possessions putting the Heels in prime field position following defensive stops. Despite the favorable starting point on the field, UNC's offense sputtered just short of the red zone and the lack of a reliable field goal kicker kept UNC from lighting the scoreboard.
It was clear, as the fourth quarter rolled along, UNC would need a series of breaks to pull out a win and got them they did. The first was an interception by Tar Heel DT Nazir Jones who tipped the ball at the line and came down with it. To this point, UNC's offense had come exclusively on big plays but now the Heels really needed to move the ball against Virginia's defense with a short field. The Tar Heels ended up getting two key plays to take the lead. The first was a Williams pass to Ryan Switzer on 3rd and 10. The second was from an unlikely hero in the form of Mitch Trubisky. After half the season of seeing Trubisky in spots where he often struggled, he was needed for one clutch on 3rd and 15 play at the Virginia 16 yard line. On the prior snap, Williams had been sacked a lost his helmet which, by rule, meant he had to leave for one play. Trubisky came in cold, found T.J. Thorpe on a slant route and the senior wide receiver broke the plane to give the Heels their first lead of the game.
Then came what was easily the gutsiest call of the game. With UNC facing the possibility of having to stop Virginia from getting into field goal range and only 4:05 left on the clock, Larry Fedora opted to try and onside kick. It worked and the Heels recovered giving UNC a chance to seal the game at best and at worst milk previous seconds before giving the ball back.
The offense was able to move the ball, force Virginia to use all three of their timeouts before the Heels faced a 4th and 1 from the Virginia 21. On the prior play, Williams ran a keeper to that point but instead of taking the holding call that would have move the Heels back, Virginia's Mike London opted to decline and force the Heels to either go for it or try a 38-yard field goal. On the surface the decision wasn't bad for Virginia. The odds of Nick Weiler making a 38-yard field goal given his previous misses were in the Cavaliers' favor. Accepting the penalty would have backed UNC up but led to third down being repeated which could have cost Virginia precious time. With a 4th and 1, Fedora opted try the field goal requiring Virginia to get a touchdown to win. The kick never came as Virginia obliged the Tar Heels by having 12 men on the field. The five yard penalty gave UNC a first down and for once the Heels were the beneficiary of an ill-time miscue instead of the victim.
Enough can be said about the play of Marquise Williams. The numbers for the junior were not as gaudy as they have been in the previous two games. Williams was 15-28 for 259 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed for 49 yards and a touchdown. Virginia's defense had a lot to do slowing Williams down hitting him repeatedly all game. Despite the pressure, Williams still made some huge plays and completed passes as he was being hit. Mitch Trubisky, whose presence in the game earlier this season was a mystery came through in easily the biggest play of his nascent career at UNC. Mack Hollins continues to impress as UNC's best receiver. The sophomore caught two more touchdowns and had 120 yards on just two catches.
Then there was the defense. Yes, they gave up 443 yards for the game and tacking is still very much an issue. The Heels also had trouble controlling the line of scrimmage against Virginia's offensive line. Lambert had plenty of time to pass and Parks found plenty of wide open holes to run through. Despite this, the Heels still managed the find enough stops and forced a key turnover late to pull out the win. While the UNC offense taking advantage of those stops would have been ideal, those stops still kept the game within reach until the Tar Heels could finally capitalize.
UNC is now 4-4 overall and 2-2 in the ACC and very much alive for a bowl game and the Coastal Division title. This was also UNC's third straight win in Charlottesville which had long been a house of horror but not anymore.