In the moment, Marquise Williams said his “heart dropped.”
Williams, the North Carolina quarterback, was on the sideline Saturday night, late in the fourth quarter, watching Georgia Tech take the lead with a 75-yard touchdown run.
Then he looked at the scoreboard and saw how much time remained. A little more than three minutes. That made him “glad,” he said, and Williams felt something familiar.
He said it reminded him of what the Tar Heels’ offense does during practice every Wednesday in their weekly two-minute drill. Last week, Williams said, the offense had beaten the defense.
Even so, the kind of situation the Tar Heels entered late in their 48-43 victory was not one that has been kind to UNC during recent seasons. So many times, the Tar Heels made mistakes late, mistakes that have cost them games.
It happened last weekend at Notre Dame. And last year with Duke and Miami. And the year before that against Duke, again. Finally, though, the Tar Heels reversed their fortunes. And Williams, known at times for questionable decision-making, made all the right decisions late.
“Like I say, that’s where the greatest are born,” said Williams, whose 463 yards of offense were 6 shy of the school record he set last season against Old Dominion. “You look at Peyton Manning; they do a two-minute drive, and Tom Brady and I felt like, hey, why can’t I do it?
“I look back at times I’ve turned the ball over in certain situations and stuff like that, but I got the opportunity to come back and redeem myself and do what I needed to do.”
One of those times Williams could have looked back on happened the previous weekend. With UNC losing by seven points midway through the fourth quarter, Williams led the Tar Heels inside the Notre Dame 30-yard line.
On a 3rd-and-4, he rolled to his left and tried to force a pass on the sideline. It was intercepted, Notre Dame scored a touchdown off the turnover, and UNC eventually ran out of time.
The difference Saturday? Williams didn’t force much of anything. After throwing a first-quarter interception, he provided the best performance of his college career.
“Throughout the game he did a really nice job of checking the ball down,” coach Larry Fedora said. “He didn’t put the ball into any coverages that he shouldn’t have. He checked it down when he should. He did a heck of a job tonight. Really.
“The way he ran the ball, as always, and the way he threw it.”
Williams completed 38 of his 47 attempts for 390 yards and four touchdowns, and he gained 73 yards rushing on 16 carries, one of them a 13-yard touchdown run during the third quarter. On UNC’s final drive, he made plays with his feet and his arm and, more important, didn’t force plays.
The drive started with an 8-yard run from Williams, up the middle on a draw, and it ended with a 2-yard touchdown run from T.J. Logan, who scored not long after a pass-interference penalty helped UNC get close to the goal line.
On that final drive, Williams completed five of seven attempts for 54 yards. Four of those completions were on short, high-percentage screen passes.
“That’s where the best quarterbacks perform, under pressure, down,” Williams said. “ As you saw I checked the ball down maybe three or four times. I knew I had to move it down, more around, just keep moving the chains.”
That he did. And then, when it was over, the Tar Heels celebrated a victory that had been a long time coming. UNC, which had lost four consecutive games, hadn’t won in more than a month.
During that stretch of futility, there had been no shortage of mistakes, penalties, no shortage of poor play from the offense and the defense and, at times, from Williams. Then came Saturday night.