CHAPEL HILL — On film, at least, Virginia looked formidable. North Carolina’s players and coaches never believed the Cavaliers were as bad as the record they brought into Kenan Stadium on Saturday, and so the Tar Heels were wary and cautious.
“They’re a good team on film,” Kareem Martin, the UNC senior defensive end, said on Saturday after the Tar Heels’ 45-14 victory against the Cavaliers, “and we knew that if we came out here playing flat, that they would be able to exploit us and maybe come out here with a win.”
UNC also knew, Martin said, that a fast start might bury Virginia, which arrived with six consecutive losses and left after extending that streak of futility. UNC (4-5, 3-3) knew that a defensive stop followed by a touchdown might lead to another, and then another, and that before long, the hapless Cavaliers (2-8, 0-6) might fold.
And that’s pretty much what happened here on Saturday, when UNC built a 14-0 first-quarter lead and never allowed Virginia in the game. At one point this season, the Tar Heels appeared headed for the same dismal place where Virginia finds itself. The victory on Saturday, though, was UNC’s third consecutive.
Earlier in the week, the Tar Heels talked among themselves about not looking past another opponent. They believed they had in September against East Carolina, and the Pirates then spent the next three hours embarrassing UNC before leaving town with a 55-31 victory.
UNC believed it learned a lesson that day. What the Tar Heels did on Saturday provided some proof.
“We talked about that,” Larry Fedora, UNC’s second-year coach, said on Saturday. “You have to feel like (Virginia’s) morale or their confidence is shaky. And so you want to try to jump on them early – just kind of keep that foot on their neck the whole way.”
The Tar Heels did that in a variety of ways. They scored touchdowns on offense, on defense and special teams. Marquise Williams, the third-year sophomore quarterback who made his second career start, threw for a touchdown, caught one and then ran for one.
By the time the Cavaliers scored, they trailed 28-7 with about five minutes remaining in the third quarter. They had a glimmer of hope, too, after intercepting Williams on UNC’s next possession, but the momentum was short-lived.
After the turnover, on a 2nd-and-9 play, Virginia quarterback David Watford rolled to his right. He attempted a short pass to his left, back toward the middle of the field, but Dominque Green, a freshman safety, stepped in front of it and returned the interception 62 yards for a touchdown that deflated the Cavaliers.
“In my mindset I was thinking, just score – just go score,” Green said. “… I (haven’t) scored a touchdown since Pop Warner football. So it felt good.”
Williams, a former standout at Mallard Creek High in Charlotte, wore a No. 2 jersey in honor of Bryn Renner, the senior quarterback who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in a victory last week at N.C. State. Williams passed for 185 yards, ran for 46 more and accounted for four touchdowns.
His touchdown reception, which came on a 29-yard pass from sophomore Quinshad Davis, gave UNC a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Davis received a pitch on an end around and Williams was wide open down the right side.
“I was just praying to God – please don’t let me drop this ball,” said Williams, who became the first UNC quarterback since 1984 to catch a touchdown pass.
While the Tar Heels’ offense had its way early, UNC’s defense continued its midseason reversal. UNC earlier this season could rarely go a half without surrendering a long, game-changing play, but in the past three games, including the one Saturday, the Tar Heels haven’t allowed those.
Virginia’s longest play on Saturday was a 35-yard pass and the Cavaliers, who averaged 3.8 yards per play and generated 316 total yards, ended their first five drives with punts. Ryan Switzer, the UNC freshman receiver, returned the last of those for an 85-yard touchdown that gave the Tar Heels a 21-0 lead.
At first, Switzer dropped the punt, but he said the ball bounced right back up and into his hands. He ran past two Virginia players, broke one tackle around UNC’s own 30-yard line and another near the Virginia 40. The return, Switzer said, came on his “favorite play,” and it resulted in what he described as a “convoy” that escorted him to the end zone.
The Tar Heels went ahead 28-0 early in the third quarter and, by then, it was just a matter of time.
About three weeks ago, the Tar Heels were 1-5. They had just suffered the most difficult of their losses – a last-second defeat against Miami that left UNC shaken. Since, UNC hasn’t lost, and now the Tar Heels can even their record with a victory next week at Pittsburgh.
“We have a don’t give up attitude – bend but don’t break,” Martin, the defensive end, said. “Guys could have packed it in. Younger guys could have worried about other things, older guys could have worried about whatever’s going on after the last game. But we decided as a team that we have goals, and we still want to meet them.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter