CHAPEL HILL — For once, there were smiles instead of scowls, and something to celebrate instead of something to mourn. For the first time in awhile, the North Carolina band on Saturday played the alma mater, and the Tar Heels stuck around and savored the moment instead of slinking away back to the locker room, beaten.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora has made a habit of counting down days to the start of a season or to a marquee game. He likely knew, then, that it had been 49 days since the Tar Heels had experienced what they did on Saturday: a victory.
Its definitely something we should try more often, Jabari Price, the North Carolina senior cornerback, said after the Tar Heels ended their misery, and their four-game losing streak, with a 34-10 victory against Boston College at Kenan Stadium.
During his years at UNC (2-5, 1-3), Price had never been a part of a losing team. Yet he feared that amid all these defeats close ones against Georgia Tech and Miami, a lopsided one against East Carolina that his teammates might become numb to it all.
Like I told the guys Friday, Price said, I didnt want losing to become an OK feeling. Like guys just being OK with it. And thats my biggest fear. And instead of that happening, we kind of did the opposite. Guys came out with a sense of urgency and played.
In a season of lows, the Tar Heels greatest triumph came after they experienced their greatest sense of despair. UNC nearly beat then-No. 10 Miami last Thursday before the Hurricanes scored the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds to play. The defeat left UNC crushed, Fedora said.
He was as curious as anyone to see how the Tar Heels might respond. Fedora had said earlier in the week that he had been losing sleep over a lot of things including the thought of whether his players were mentally strong enough to rebound from what happened against Miami.
I know everybody questioned the frame of mind of our kids, and its understandable, Fedora said. (Theyve had) great attitudes in practice, and were getting after them in practice, now. Its not like were out there putting our arms around them with hugs and kisses.
UNCs defense surrendered a 90-yard touchdown drive late in that loss against the Hurricanes. On Saturday, the Tar Heels recovered a fumble on the first series of the game, and the turnover set up UNCs first touchdown, which came on Bryn Renners 13-yard pass to freshman receiver Ryan Switzer.
Huge play, Jeff Schoettmer, the UNC linebacker said of the fumble, which he recovered. It really boosted the morale of the whole team.
The Tar Heels maligned defense, which has had a habit of making opposing offenses look faster and more potent than they might be against other teams, gave its finest performance of the season. Andre Williams, the Boston College senior running back, gained 172 yards, but outside of that the Eagles (3-4, 1-3) generated fewer than 100 yards.
Even Williams struggled at times, outside of his 56-yard touchdown run that gave the Eagles a 7-6 lead midway through the first quarter. The Tar Heels took the lead for good on A.J. Blues 1-yard run early in the second quarter, and Renner, who completed 18 of his 21 attempts for 227 yards, threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Bug Howard, who gave UNC a 20-7 lead just before halftime.
As they did against Miami, Renner and Marquise Williams shared time at quarterback. They both accounted for two touchdowns, and Williams, the third-year sophomore, led UNC with 55 yards rushing four of them coming on a touchdown that gave the Tar Heels a 34-7 lead with about nine minutes to play.
Marquise Williams described the postgame scene in UNCs locker room as one of joy which is something that for more than a month and a half had been absent from the Tar Heels postgame environment.
Coach has been showing us examples of how some teams that have been 0-5 and 0-6, but they turned it around and won the next seven to get to a bowl game, he said. So thats what were feeding off of.
The Tar Heels began the season with aspirations of winning the Coastal Division and improving on its 8-4 finish in 2012 in Fedoras first season as head coach. Those goals, though, evaporated amid a stretch of futility in which UNC was at times its own worst enemy.
The difference between those days and Saturday was clear enough to Fedora.
A lot fewer mistakes (today), he said. I mean, really a lot fewer mistakes. A lot cleaner game.
There were no touchdowns called back because of a penalty, like there had been, at one point, in three consecutive losses. There were no bizarre errors like flubbing the coin toss and kicking off twice to start both halves, or enduring a critical delay of game penalty at the worst time, which cost UNC against Miami.
Instead, at last, there was a victory for the Tar Heels, and a celebration that had been a long time coming.
We (knew) our season could take one of two turns, said Kareem Martin, the UNC senior defensive end who had two of North Carolinas four sacks. And we wanted to make the best turn.