CHARLOTTE — North Carolina coach Larry Fedora and his players never allowed themselves to talk much about the future, or to look too far ahead, but finally they did after they finished the season Saturday with a 39-17 victory against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
Fedora spoke of young players who turned around North Carolinas season after a 1-5start, and those young players talked about each other, naming the same names and predicting better and brighter days ahead. Freshman receiver Ryan Switzer was among them.
Its a big momentum boost, man, said Switzer, who earned bowl most valuable player honors after he returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown. T.J. Logan had a heck of a game. Khris Francis, the young guys. You know, weve got a bright future ahead of us. And we cant get hot-headed, man.
The future, in some ways, was supposed to be now for the Tar Heels. They began the season with the grand aspiration of winning the ACCs Coastal Division, but they instead watched Duke celebrate that accomplishment when the Blue Devils defeated North Carolina on its home field in the final game of the regular season.
On one hand, the Belk Bowl represented an end to a disappointing, difficult season. On the other, the victory Saturday was the culmination of a mid-season reversal, and a win that offered hope for what might come.
Fedora often has credited the teams seniors for keeping hope alive in a season that appeared hopeless at least from the outside when the Tar Heels were 1-5 in mid-October. As much as the seniors provided emotional leadership, younger players provided the bulk of production while North Carolina won six of its final seven games.
Im really excited about the future, now, Im telling you, Fedora said Saturday. Weve got some young kids like Ryan and T.J. and Mikey Bart and Brian Walker and Des Lawrence Lucas Crowley and Bug Howard. I mean, these are all guys that are true freshmen, not counting the redshirt freshmen that played for us this year also.
Im excited about the future, I really am. Were going in the right direction.
North Carolinas underclassman again played the most prominent roles Saturday. Freshmen and sophomores scored all but one of the Tar Heels five touchdowns.
Marquise Williams, a sophomore quarterback, passed for 171 yards and ran for 46. Logan, a freshman running back, returned a kickoff 78 yards for a touchdown, and ran for a game-high 77 yards on 15 carries.
Its very promising, Logan said, because we have such young players playing at high levels. Its going to be good.
Logans touchdown return came toward the end of the first quarter, moments after senior defensive end Kareem Martin and junior linebacker Brandon Ellerbe combined to sack Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay in the end zone for a safety. Logan then gave North Carolina a 16-0 lead, and it led by double digits the rest of the game.
The safety turned the momentum in the Tar Heels favor. It also represented the signature play for North Carolinas defense, which allowed a season-low 349 yards.
I thought we dominated, really, in the first half, Fedora said of the Tar Heels defense.
It excelled at times during the second half, too, and kept the Bearcats scoreless after theyd recovered a fumble on a kickoff moments after Cincinnati scored a touchdown that cut North Carolinas lead to 36-17 early in the fourth quarter. That stop allowed the Tar Heels to begin a nine-minute drive that put the game away.
North Carolina will suffer its greatest personnel losses on defense. Martin played his final game. So, too, did Tre Boston, who frustrated UNCs coaches with his proclivity to allow big plays, but who also had a proven knack for the big play himself.
Offensively, the Tar Heels will lose Eric Ebron, a junior who set school and ACC records for receiving yardage by a tight end. James Hurst, a senior left tackle and four-year starter, also played his final game and left during the first quarter after suffering a non-displaced fracture in his left fibula.
Yet nearly every other player North Carolina relied upon Saturday is expected to return, including Switzer. His third-quarter punt return for a touchdown was his fifth of the season, which set an ACC record and tied the NCAA record.
Oh yeah, man it should be six, Switzer said, referring to a touchdown he had wiped away by a penalty in a loss at Virginia Tech.
Switzer spoke while North Carolinas band blared the fight song in the background, and the Tar Heels walked off the field with a winning record for the first time this season. It had been a long journey.
At its darkest point, Fedora and his players stood stunned in the final seconds of a loss against Miami, which scored a touchdown in the final seconds to beat UNC on Oct. 17. It appeared improbable that North Carolina would become bowl eligible.
Nobody thought wed be sitting here today, Fedora said. I mean, really. At least nobody outside of our locker room.
That loss, though, proved to be a turning point. For the rest of the season, North Carolina never spoke of anything beyond its next game. Finally, with no games left to play, the Tar Heels could look a little farther into the future, and they liked what they saw.