CHAPEL HILL — Jonathan Cooper arrived at North Carolina as a lightly recruited player, overlooked and disregarded by most of best teams in the nation. He leaves college as perhaps the best interior lineman in the country, and after the Tar Heels 45-38 victory against Maryland on Saturday, Cooper lingered in the moment.
Bittersweet, Cooper said afterward of his emotions following the Heels victory on senior day. Happy to win the game, but sad that that was my last game in that Carolina blue uniform in Kenan Stadium.
(I) really just tried to soak up the atmosphere.
There could have been more of one, what with thousands of empty seats at Kenan. But as far as endings go, this is about as much as UNC could have expected, or hoped for, when it began a season that in some aspects had already been decided.
Long before they began preseason practice, the Tar Heels knew there would be no bowl game for them this season, that thered be no appearance in the ACC championship game. Even so, their come-from-behind victory on Saturday after trailing 35-21 in the third quarter allowed them to finish in a tie with Georgia Tech and Miami for first place in the Coastal Division.
Had the Heels been eligible for the postseason, they would have won the divisional tiebreaker and played Florida State on Saturday in the ACC championship game. But coach Larry Fedora and players said on Saturday there were no thoughts about what-ifs, or what could have been.
Instead, Fedora spoke of his teams perseverance and how it rallied from a two-touchdown third-quarter deficit.
I was proud of the way these guys fought back in the second half (and) came out there and fought, scratched, clawed their way to victory, Fedora said. Im proud, again, of these seniors and what they mean to this team.
To be Coastal Division champs and thats the way well look at it were very proud of this football team.
The ACC wont recognize UNC as division champions. There will be no trophy. But there will be memories, for Fedora and for his players, of a team that didnt surrender to its circumstances.
The latest example came on Saturday early in the third quarter, after Stefon Diggs, the Maryland freshman receiver, returned the second halfs opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown that gave the Terrapins a 35-21 lead.
UNC needed just 24 seconds to respond, and did so on Bryn Renners 50-yard touchdown pass to Quinshad Davis, a freshman who caught nine passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. After a defensive stop, the Heels tied the game at 35 with Renners 15-yard pass to Erik Highsmith with 12:10 to play in the third quarter.
Those two touchdowns were the first of the Heels 24 third-quarter points. By the time their barrage ended, they led 45-35, and Maryland never recovered the momentum it had built before halftime.
Highsmith, who in his final game finished with two catches for 27 yards, was one of many UNC seniors who tried to put into words what his final collegiate game represented. He struggled.
Im not prepared for it, man, he said of the end of his collegiate career. Ill probably cry a couple of more times tonight about it.
The ending of UNCs senior day story was happy for the Heels, but the middle had the home crowd booing at halftime. The Heels led 14-0 less than three minutes into the game, but mustered little else offensively during the rest of the first half.
During the final 21 seconds of the second quarter, Maryland tied the game at 21 and then took a 28-21 lead after UNC fumbled a kickoff. The Terps recovered and Shawn Petty, a freshman linebacker who is playing quarterback because Maryland has been decimated by injuries, threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Dorsey.
Then Maryland began the second half with Diggs 99-yard return. Renner, who completed 28 of his 39 attempts for 305 yards and five touchdowns, described that moment afterward.
To sum up our season, I think Jonathan Cooper, the rock of our team, really said it the best, Renner said. We have this saying, Hanging loose. We do the Hawaii sign. And when everythings chaotic and when adversity comes, we kind of just hang loose.
And we had dealt with adversity before, on the field and off, so we knew how to bounce back.
The Heels did. After Renners first two scoring passes in the third, Thomas Moore added a 22-yard field goal and Giovani Bernard, who gained 163 yards on 27 carries, scored on a 1-yard run.
Bernard helped UNC melt away the clock late in the fourth quarter, after Marylands Brad Craddock made a 27-yard field goal with 3:12 to play. The Terrapins came no closer, and UNC celebrated a victory that was at once both meaningless and among the most meaningful of Fedoras first season here.
Afterward, Sylvester Williams, the Tar Heels senior defensive tackle, thought back to his first encounter with Fedora. During that meeting, Fedora told Williams hed need to lose about 30 pounds.
So Williams did, and then became one of Fedoras favorite players.
Im sad but Im also excited that I got a chance to play for all these guys and all these coaches, Williams said. Because its not every day you meet guys in your life that will probably be a part of your life for the rest of your life.
Even though his team couldnt play in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, Fedora spoke often throughout the season about leaving a legacy. Cooper, the senior lineman, answered quickly when asked what he wanted the UNCs seniors legacy to be.
One of a tough group of fighters, he said. People who have been through a lot and just continue to fight back.