Anyone who has kids knows the first bike they ride has them. Once they develop the strength to push the pedals they do a pretty good job of riding around the cul-de-sac without much intervention from you. They may not go very fast but they can usually get along just fine. The time comes when those training wheels should come off and your kid needs to learn how to ride without them. It's a painful process that includes tears, giving up, trying again and eventually success.
Larry Fedora's tenure at UNC can be likened to that process. Fedora came to UNC and found plenty of leftover talent. The Butch Davis era, while ending with NCAA sanctions, was bountiful with quality players. That talent was undeniably good at key positions and served as training wheels of sorts for Fedora. Gio Bernard, Sylvester Williams, Bryn Renner, Kareem Martin, Jonathan Cooper, Russell Bodine and Eric Ebron all gave Fedora a firm base of talent to win with in his first couple of seasons.
Heading into 2014, UNC would begin operating with mostly Fedora's recruits filling up much of the meaningful slots on the depth chart. The effects of NCAA sanctions were still being felt so the team was young and also not very deep at some key positions, especially on defense. The training wheels had been taken off and through six games it looked like all the world like the other wheels were coming off too. The defense had reached a level of historical awfulness. The offense was close to what Fedora wanted and was largely responsible for keeping UNC in games. The Tar Heels managed some wins thanks to that offense but the falls off the bike in the form of blowout losses to ECU and Miami plus giving up 50 points to Clemson and Notre Dame were particularly nasty.
On Thursday night in Durham everything changed, at least for one game anyway. The high powered offense was just that and only stopped because Marquise Williams made bad decisions with the football. For much of the season, mistakes like these would have been a disaster. Williams' three fumbles could have been 21 Duke points and made a blowout Tar Heel win a pitch battle for the Victory Bell. Instead it was the defense compensating for the offense instead of vice-versa. The beleaguered offensive line opened holes for the running backs and those running back shared the rushing load that Williams had mostly shouldered all season. After watching ten games where it felt like the different pieces would never make it onto the same page, UNC finally put the pieces together for an epic rivalry win.
UNC's 45-20 win over Duke was one game so its importance is best described for how it impacts the here and now. UNC is now bowl eligible, it ended a two game losing streak to Duke and perhaps served to reset the gap that had opened up between the two programs. It also may have been just one fluke game that bucks the trend thanks to a mostly random confluence of events. After all, even a bad defense has a great game every so often.
While all that is true, this game could also serve as a turning point in the Larry Fedora era. It could be that moment where the players truly bought into what the coaching staff had been teaching them. The actual bearing of fruit following weeks of seeing barren branches could give the Tar Heel players the necessary confidence and the program much needed momentum. It's that moment, after the scrapes and bruises of falling off the bike, this team finally caught that split second of balance and figured out how to stay upright.
One win doesn't erase the prior failures of 2014 nor does it guarantee there won't be letdowns in the future. However, on Thursday night it felt like UNC football finally figured out how to ride the bike. Now let's see if the Tar Heels can keep pedaling.