CHARLOTTESVILLE — Just five days before North Carolinas 37-13 victory against Virginia on Thursday night, the Tar Heels had allowed 68 points during a dubious, history-making loss against Georgia Tech.
UNCs defensive players returned to campus on Sunday, one day after that loss, and UNC coach Larry Fedora saw pain in their eyes. He wanted to see that. He wanted them to hurt. And then he wanted them to forget, and to become stronger from the experience.
After his teams performance on Thursday night after UNCs Tre Boston returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown, and after the defense twice made important stands when the Cavaliers were threatening deep in Tar Heels territory Fedora thought back to a few days ago.
I guess we answered the question of whether these guys can bounce back or not, and do it in a short week, he said.
Those questions surrounded the Heels after their 68-50 defeat against Georgia Tech. UNC allowed nearly 600 yards of offense in that game, and the 50 points it scored were the most by an ACC team in a losing effort.
Without a bowl game to play for, and with two games left in a long regular season, Fedora and his players faced questions about whether the Tar Heels would remain motivated. Fedora even admitted that he was worried about how his team, and particularly the defense, would respond from humiliation.
I was really worried about them mentally, Fedora said. But when you saw the way they bounced around in practice and you saw their attitudes and their look in their eyes, they had no down look [in practice].
Surrounded by reporters afterward, Sylvester Williams, the Tar Heels senior defensive tackle was asked whether he and his defensive teammates restored their pride.
But, he said, We never lost pride.
Sixty-eight points was embarrassing, Williams said, but we took that loss and we built off of it. Instead of [losing] our pride, we held our heads high. Like coach said, put it behind you, man. Move on from it.
UNC on Thursday night amassed 446 yards of offense and Bryn Renner, the junior quarterback, played one of his finest games of the season. He completed 29 of his 36 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns. Quinshad Davis, the Heels freshman receiver, caught 16 passes for 178 yards. Those totals set records for a UNC freshman, and the receptions tied the ACCs single-game record.
It was the Heels defense, though, that provided the spirit of UNCs victory.
The defense changed the game late in the third quarter after Virginia (4-7, 2-5), which trailed 20-10 at halftime, drove from its own 21-yard line to the Tar Heels 1, where the Cavaliers faced a 4th-and-goal. Instead of choosing to kick a field goal that would have cut the Tar Heels lead to 20-16, Cavaliers coach Mike London decided to go for it.
It was an ill-fated decision. Kevin Parks, the Virginia sophomore running back, never made it out of the backfield. He attempted to run up the middle, but UNCs Kareem Parks and Kevin Reddick stopped Parks before he got started.
We told ourselves we were going to man up and put our neck in the hole for our team, Williams said. And thats what we did. And ball might have been a yard off of the end zone. That was a big stop.
Fedora later said he had been nervous watching that play.
How confident was I that they were going to make that goal line stand? I wouldnt say I was confident, Fedora said. I was excited that they did. You dont expect goal line stands like that especially two in one game.
The Heels another defensive stand had come earlier in the third quarter, after Giovani Bernard fumbled a punt deep in UNC territory. The Cavaliers took over on the Heels 12-yard line, but they had to settle for Drew Jarretts 28-yard field goal.
After UNCs stop on the goal line, the Tar Heels took over on their own 3, Bernard gave UNC some room when he gained 19 yards on a pair of carries, and from there the Heels methodically moved down the field. The drive ended when Renner passed to Bernard, who was wide open over the middle, for a 23-yard touchdown that gave UNC a 27-13 lead.
On Virginias next drive, Phillip Sims passed deep down the middle to Darius Jennings, who had caught a 9-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Jennings was open by several yards, and the pass hit him in stride. Had he caught it, Jennings likely would have scored a touchdown that would have made it a one-possession game.
But instead he bobbled the ball and dropped it, and Virginia was forced to punt.
UNC put the game away on its next possession, when Renner threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Erik Highsmith. The play put the Heels ahead 37-13 with 8:46 to play, and many among a crowd of about 45,000 began to file out of Scott Stadium.
Entering Thursday, UNC had allowed more than 500 yards of offense in each of its past three games. But the Cavaliers never got much going against the Heels, who used Bostons 36-yard interception return for a touchdown to take a 20-10 lead with 4:37 to play before halftime.
That play, and UNCs stop on 4th-and-goal from the 1 late in the third quarter, were important as any for a team that wanted to replace bad memories, and a bad taste, with something positive.