CHAPEL HILL — Regardless of where, when and how this gripping football season ends for North Carolina, an opportune 21-17 win over William & Mary on Saturday will be remembered as an unlikely landmark.
On homecoming and in perfect weather before hundreds of empty seats and a dispassionate audience in Kenan Stadium, the Tar Heels barely dodged an upset that would have taxed the team's resolve and perhaps cut deeply into Butch Davis' popularity.
Both issues surfaced during halftime.
With the Heels behind 17-7 and in danger of losing a fourth game, the players said Davis become unusually vocal and emotional.
"He told us it was time to man up," senior safety Deunta Williams said.
"Coach doesn't normally get that excited, but he was right. We were flat. We'd put ourselves in trouble, but we woke up and manned up."
Thanks to a crucial sack by linebacker Bruce Carter on W&M quarterback Michael Paulus and a winning 67-yard touchdown run by Johnny White with 5:27 left, North Carolina kept its season out of the ditch and remained in the picture for a bowl bid.
At 5-3 overall and with games left against ACC foes Florida State, Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Duke, the Heels still aren't totally safe. Even after Duke's shocking win at Navy on Saturday, Davis' fourth season should produce a third straight bowl bid.
A loss to the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) Tribe would have left the already-besieged team in direct danger of a wipeout.
"I didn't think the whole season was on the line, but we definitely were not playing the way we should have in that first half," UNC quarterback T.J. Yates said. "Coach was pretty upset. I think we all were."
Between player suspensions and a long list of injuries, Davis had 66 scholarship players at his disposal Saturday. NCAA rules for Bowl Subdivision teams allow 85 scholarship players.
Three of UNC's 66 were backup quarterbacks. Eight others were players he still hopes to redshirt, and two more were center Alan Pelc and linebacker Quan Sturdivant, who were injured but technically cleared to play if needed.
Attrition has been a problem for Davis and his staff all season, the upshot of NCAA and school investigations into rules infractions and academic behavior.
Through it all, Davis has maintained the unyielding loyalty of athletic director Dick Baddour, university chancellor Holden Thorp, the board of trustees and a large percentage of the fan base.
But bad losses and losing seasons get a lot more coaches in trouble than off-field developments, and a loss to William & Mary on homecoming would have saddled Davis with luggage no one expected.
Davis called the game "a microcosm of a lot of things that have happened."
"The team showed a lot of resilience," he said. "Even though it looked ugly ... they kept fighting."
Going to Florida State this week, the Heels' secondary is in a state of unconditional patchwork. Six corners either have been injured or held out of games due to the probes, and the situation only got worse when redshirt freshman Terry Shankle sustained a knee injury against the Tribe.
Davis said the staff may have to move players into new positions simply to execute basic coverage schemes against the Seminoles.
But a loss on the road against Florida State is understandable, even for teams in perfect health.
A loss to William & Mary, however, would have haunted the coach and his team all the way to the finish line. Wherever that is.
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