CHAPEL HILL — With one interception return for a touchdown already, North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney was just trying to be generous. He made it 46 yards before he started to tire and decided to lateral the ball to someone.
By the time he saw Melvin Williams, his roommate, to his right, the ball was bouncing out of his hands. Instead of the ball falling to any of the Miami players in the neighborhood, Williams picked it out of midair and took it the final 44 yards for a touchdown.
It was either a fortuitous fumble or an illegal forward pass, depending on perspective. A video review declared it the former, giving North Carolina a 13-point fourth-quarter lead on the way to a 33-24 win over the 12th-ranked Hurricanes.
"I knew it was forward. I didn't know if they were going to see the fumble part of it," Burney said, laughing.
"It was kind of a funny situation, but everything worked out the way it worked out."
Burney had three of the Tar Heels' four interceptions in the latest ball-hawking performance for a defense that has led a turnaround from 4-3 and extremely bowl-uncertain to 7-3 and securely bowl-eligible.
Hard to believe the same team that lost so badly to Georgia Tech, Virginia and Florida State could win at Virginia Tech, on a Thursday night no less, take care of business against Duke, beat Miami at home and carry a shot at a 9-3 record into the final two weeks of the season.
The difference is defense. The same group that slept through the Virginia game - that one is still tough to figure - and fell apart in the second half against Florida State has awakened and started winning games instead of helping lose them - scoring two touchdowns Saturday to the offense's one.
"We've got some kids in the secondary that are very talented athletes," North Carolina coach Butch Davis said. "Not only can they play the ball well in the air, but they're a threat to score when they catch the ball. Tonight, it couldn't have come at a better time."
Over the Tar Heels' first six games, which included two glorified scrimmages against FCS opponents, they were minus-3 in turnovers.
Since then, in their three wins, the Tar Heels are plus-6, with some of the turning points of their season among their eight takeaways, from the fumble by Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams that set up the game-winning field goal to Burney's big plays Saturday.
"We've been having fun," Burney said. "If you watch us before the games, during the games, I'm out there joking, having fun, smiling punching one of the big guys and running away."
The obvious implication is that the Tar Heels weren't having any fun as that 3-0 start soured and the Tar Heels hit bottom as that second-half lead over the Seminoles evaporated.
And now? Burney was whooping it up so loudly during Miami's final, futile drive that he spit out his mouthpiece, tucking it in his sock for the last few plays.
"This night has been the funnest game I've ever had," Burney said. "I was grinning all game."
It was easy for the Tar Heels to smile Saturday. They're guaranteed to play in a bowl somewhere now, and they can thank their defense for that.
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