Last year, Carolina traveled to Georgia Tech for their ACC opener, quickly falling behind 21-0 in the second quarter. Carolina was only three weeks removed from a frustrating loss to border rival South Carolina. The Heels had bounced back strongly with home blowouts over North Carolina A&T and Illinois. Those were separate challenges in themselves, but here Carolina sat down 21-0, a margin that the program had never overcome in a victory, where they had not won in 18 years. History was clearly stacked up against the Tar Heels.
In the past, you would have watched Georgia Tech grind away the victory by a large margin, but this afternoon in Atlanta was different. UNC pieced together a nine-play, 75-yard drive to inch within two touchdowns. After stopping the Yellow Jackets and using a few timeouts, Carolina received the ball right before the half and drove down the field for a score that made it a 21-14 game.
The Tar Heels certainly had to be feeling good about themselves going into the second half, given the early deficit they had faced. A 37-yard Nick Weiler field goal brought the Heels within four, only to have the Georgia Tech lead pushed back to 28-17 four plays later.
From that point on it was all Carolina as Marquise Williams drove the offense down the field in 11 plays to climb back within four. The Yellow Jackets responded with a 12-play, 74-yard drive of their own only to turn the ball over on downs at the Tar Heel 1-yard line. A few drives later, a trick play allowed Quinshad Davis to keep up his completion percentage as Williams strutted to the end zone for the Tar Heels first lead of the day at 31-28. Yet another Tar Heel defensive stand led to a Williams rushing touchdown and a 10-point lead. Georgia Tech would respond one more time, climbing within a touchdown.
Tech found themselves with the ball and a final chance with 1:04 left and needing 70 yards to force overtime. The game came down to a last-ditch Hail Mary that was intercepted by M.J. Stewart, sending the Heels back to Chapel Hill with not only their first win in Atlanta since 1997, but with a 1-0 record in the ACC.
ACC openers had not been kind to the Heels prior to the win at Georgia Tech. Carolina had lost 13 out of their last 14 ACC openers. Falling behind in the ACC early made it extremely difficult, particularly in a mercurial Coastal division for the Tar Heels to climb out of a hole and into the ACC title game. That’s why I wrote last week about the importance of being 1-0.
Similar to last year’s league opener at Georgia Tech, Saturday’s opener versus Pitt saw Carolina fall behind early and get severely beaten in the time of possession battle in the first quarter. Where they parallel is that, like in Atlanta, Carolina easily could have fallen apart after trailing early. Instead, they closed within a three point margin going into halftime giving new life to the second half. Where both games differ is in the Tar Heels’ momentum after halftime. PItt still was able to control the ball and wear on the UNC defense nursing a 36-23 lead with just over 11 minutes left in the game. Again, where the two are similar is in how the Tar Heel defense came together and made a stop when they had to.
Nazair Jones, Des Lawrence, Mikey Bart, and numerous other Carolina defenders made the plays necessary that allowed Mitch Trubisky to orchestrate the 17-play, 63-yard miracle drive. That drive, much like the second half at Georgia Tech, has set up Carolina with momentum heading into the next seven ACC games. A loss would have certainly set the team back, along with raising further questions about how meaningful last season’s Coastal division title was.
This weekend, Carolina heads to Tallahassee in a game where history has not been in their favor. Until 2010’s visit to Florida State, the Tar Heels had never won at Doak Campbell Stadium. 2010 is a year many want to forget, given the NCAA investigation that went on that fall involving the football program. The win at FSU was one of those bright spots and could turn out to have the same impact if the Heels were to win for a second time.
The national narrative has been that Carolina didn’t play a tough enough schedule to earn praise for winning the Coastal division in 2015. Also, doubts have been placed on the ability of Larry Fedora’s program to win the big games following the losses to South Carolina, Clemson, and Baylor.
Last week, I asked the Tar Heels to “Show Me” that they weren’t all talk and that a Coastal defense was a real possibility. This week I challenge them to “Prove It.” Prove to the nation and to all of the so-called experts that this program is ready to step into the national limelight. History hasn’t been on the program’s side, but a win in Tallahassee could point to the script finally being rewritten.