For North Carolina to snatch victory from the clutches of defeat on Saturday, for it to turn what was looking like a sure loss into an improbable win, it needed a bizarre confluence of events to transpire, and for all of them to happen in the final six minutes.
So this is how the Tar Heels escaped Scott Stadium with a 28-27 victory against Virginia: with an interception from a defensive lineman, and then a long pass on third-and-long, and then a touchdown pass from the backup quarterback, and then an onside kick and then a Virginia penalty that sealed it.
And all of it coming fast and unpredictably, one thing after the next, the strange leading into the bizarre and leading, finally, to a victory that evens UNC’s record and puts the Tar Heels right in the thick of the Coastal Division race.
“Wild,” Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, said when asked how he would describe what he’d just seen. “Hectic.”
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Those terms fit from the start of UNC’s late-game turnaround, starting with that interception. It happened with a little more than six minutes to play, with Virginia (4-4, 2-2), leading 27-21, pursuing a score that just might have put the game out of reach. The Cavaliers had just converted their ninth third down of the game, and they were across midfield now, driving.
And then? And then Nazair Jones, the UNC freshman defensive end, said, “You’ve got to smell a rat.”
“I’m not really sure what down it (was), but I know that in long situations they like to run the screen to the boundary,” Jones said. “Our coaches told us that, and we knew it going throughout the week. And it just so happened I saw the guard wasn’t playing too hard on me, so I knew something was up.”
Jones watched the running back curl around him, and he watched Greyson Lambert, the Virginia quarterback, loft a soft screen pass in the back’s direction. Jones jumped and intercepted it, and then returned it 20 yards – Virginia players hanging off him some of the way – to give UNC (4-4, 2-2) possession, and hope.
The Tar Heels’ offense played well after UNC fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter. But UNC had done little in the second half and, suddenly, it faced third and 10 from the Cavaliers’ 38-yard line.
The Tar Heels to that point hadn’t converted a third down in the second half, but this time, Marquise Williams, the junior quarterback, found Ryan Switzer, the sophomore receiver, behind the defense. The pass was on target for a 27-yard gain.
And, moments later, it led to the second – but not the last – uncommon occurrence in the final minutes. Williams was sacked and lost his helmet, forcing him to the sideline. Fedora could have called a timeout, which would have allowed Williams to remain in the game.
“Thought about it, yeah,” Fedora said.
Instead, though, on a critical third and 15 with a little more than four minutes to play, Fedora put his faith in Mitch Trubisky, the second-year freshman and backup quarterback. Trubisky, who had rotated with Williams earlier this season but hadn’t done that the past two weeks, took the snap and calmly delivered a pass over the middle to T.J. Thorpe, who scored on a 16-yard touchdown.
UNC led 28-27 – its first lead of the game. And the last one it needed.
“There were no time for nerves,” Trubisky said later. “I saw Quise’s helmet go off. Put my hat down, put my helmet on, ran in, got the play. And the guys up front did a great job of getting me time, and I just threw a touchdown.”
The Tar Heels, it turned out, weren’t finished with the unusual. On the ensuing kickoff, they tried an onside kick and recovered it.
It worked, in large part, because UNC’s players said they noticed the tendency of Virginia’s kickoff return team to retreat immediately when Nick Weiler, UNC’s kickoff man, approached the ball. And it worked because of Mack Hollins, the receiver who caught two first-half touchdown passes – 57 and 63 yards – and later recovered that onside kick.
“That’s the player of the game right there,” said Williams, who completed 15 of his 28 attempts for 259 yards and two touchdowns, and also ran for a 52-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
After recovering the onside kick UNC simply melted away the clock – but not before Virginia committed an illegal substitution penalty – 12 men on the field – that gave the Tar Heels an automatic first down with about a minute to play. Weiler was about to attempt a 39-yard field goal.
No need. A couple of kneel downs later, it was over – a strange, weird victory that Fedora described as “huge.” He spoke afterward of the things not to like – particularly how the defense allowed 443 yards (but only 47 of them in the fourth quarter). But this was a victory in which UNC saved its best for last.
“We’ve talked about that going into last week’s game against Georgia Tech, that we’re in the playoffs, basically,” Fedora said. “I mean, that’s what we’re in.
“But our guys are confident. They feel good about where we’re at. They know on the outside nobody believes it. But that’s OK. We only need the guys in that room to believe it.”
They might have believed all along but, undoubtedly, their faith increased with a little more than midway through the fourth quarter, when Jones intercepted the first pass he could ever remember intercepting, at any level.
He carried the ball with him to the sideline and, eventually, a ball boy retrieved it from him. The UNC offense took the field, meanwhile, and everything was set into motion.