If you have not read Brian's excellent piece on "The Shoe That Didn't Drop", you need to stop and do so immediately. That really sums up the range of emotions that Carolina fans went through on Saturday in what was probably the biggest game for the UNC football program in nearly two decades. Brian's article in particular referenced the Virginia collapse in 1996 that kept the Tar Heels from a Bowl Alliance game, but the feeling I had watching UNC play on Saturday was another not-ready-for-prime-time performance from the 1990s - the 1997 Florida State game.
Like the Virginia game the year before, the 1997 FSU game has earned its place in Carolina infamy. In November of that year, UNC was 8-0, ranked in the top 5, and had only been really challenged once. Undefeated and #2-ranked Florida State came to Kenan Stadium and ESPN College GameDay made their one and only appearance in Chapel Hill. The place was lit, as the young folks like to say. The atmosphere was electric and the emotion was through the roof. The problem of course, was that the Tar Heels came out flat and played uninspired football on what may have been the biggest stage the program had ever played and Carolina fell 20-3 to the Seminoles. UNC would recover to win its last two games to finish 10-1 but despite its top-10 ranking, the Heels were left out of the Bowl Alliance and consigned yet again to the Gator Bowl. Mack Brown left that December and, well, you know what happened for most of the next 20 years.
Fast forward to 2015 and Carolina is playing at Virginia Tech in a packed stadium with a divisional championship on the line in a game full of emotion on both sides, and for three quarters UNC pretty much laid another egg on the big stage. After the opening drive for a touchdown, the Heels pretty much bumbled and stumbled through the next 30-40 minutes of football and allowed an over-matched Hokie team to hang around long past the point where UNC should have been able to put the game away. When the Carolina defense finally looked like it was going to make it easy for the offense to finally score, UNC went up 14 points in the 4th quarter and the Seminole demons would be exorcised. But it's never that easy when you are a Carolina football fan and if the Seminole demons weren't enough, the Wahoo demons decided to make an appearance. For once, however, UNC was able to move beyond its past and recover in overtime to give the Heels a berth in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. It wasn't pretty but it was a win, and it was the kind of win that has eluded UNC for over 30 years.
So with that in mind, here is the divisional championship edition of the GBU Report:
Elijah Hood: Hood topped 100 yards yet again, grinding out 115 yards and two touchdowns. Hood became only the second UNC running back to top 1,000 yards since 1997 (the other was Giovani Bernard, who did it in both 2011 and 2012).
Shakeel Rashad: The senior linebacker had a monster day with 15 tackles and a sack.
Defensive line: After getting pushed around early, the D-line made adjustments and had a stellar effort. Mikey Bart had 2 1/2 sacks, Nazair Jones had a key forced fumble, and the defense sacked Michael Brewer five times while holding the Hokies to 130 yards rushing.
Joey Mangili: On a day where Carolina was forced to punt a season-high eight times, Mangili was rock steady, averaging almost 41 yards per kick and not making UNC fans sweat every punt as has happened earlier this season.
Quinshad Davis: It was only appropriate that Carolina's career receptions leader caught the game-winning touchdown pass. It was also a nice closing of the circle that Davis made that grab as he broke his leg on a similar play in the last game of last season.
Marquise Williams: The UNC offense spent most of the game out of sync and the Heels struggles were directly connected to the play of their senior quarterback. Williams had far and away his worst game since the season opener, connecting on only 50% of his passes but he did add 74 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The Hokies kept a player spying on Williams all day to limit his running but he didn't look comfortable in the pocket. And, of course, his four fumbles, losing three of them, nearly cost Carolina the game just like his three interceptions cost the game against South Carolina. Everyone is entitled to a bad outing now and again but holy cow, UNC hadn't seen Bad Quise like that in a long time.
Game management: I usually try to refrain from criticizing coaching decisions because I'm not in practice nor do I know if the players actually did what the coaches called or what the coaches saw when they made certain calls. There were plenty of questions in UNC's play-calling, however, such as why your 1,000-yard back only got three carries in the first half or why you run two straight running plays on UNC's final possession in regulation. The bigger issue, though, is that it would seem that once again Larry Fedora didn't know the down and distance on that possession. Carolina had 1:07 left and two timeouts and has scored on a number of occasions in similar situations this year. But after getting a first down and an incomplete pass, UNC ran a QB draw and a sweep for T.J. Logan, and going into a 4th-and-8, inexplicably called a time out with 32 seconds left. It was later determined that Fedora thought it was 3rd down, not 4th. And this is the second time this season that has happened.
Offensive line: What a hideous day by a veteran group. Whether it was the butt-snap fumble by Lucas Crowley, or the inability to get Elijah Hood and the UNC offense into the end zone on two cracks from the one-yard line (and Williams on a third attempt), or the seven, yes SEVEN false start penalties, it was a day to forget for the O-line. Carolina is extremely lucky the play of the O-line did not cost them the game.
Any time a team wins a title, be it division or conference, you can point to a game where you didn't play well enough to win but won anyway. This was that game for UNC, and in the past, it was the kind of game UNC would have lost. Given Carolina's tortured history and the emotion lined up against them from Frank Beamer's last game to gagging up the big lead, it was set up for the Tar Heels to be let down yet again. but for once fate smiled and UNC clinched the division, which is fortunate given that it seems Pittsburgh has no designs on going quietly.
Or to paraphrase Dean Smith after the 1993 national title: Fortunate, yes. Lucky, yes. But UNC is still the Coastal Division champs.