It took a little while on Saturday night at Kenan Stadium – about 15 minutes or so – but eventually North Carolina did what good teams do against over-matched competition: Eventually the Tar Heels imposed their will in a 50-14 victory against Wake Forest.
It was another indication, UNC's victory, that maybe things really are different now for the Tar Heels. That perhaps they're becoming more mature, more poised, more confident. For the second time in as many games, UNC shrugged off a slow start and then dominated.
It happened first in a 38-31 victory against Georgia Tech earlier this month, when UNC erased a 21-0 deficit to mount the largest come from behind victory in school history. And it happened again on a much smaller scale – or larger scale, depending on your perspective – against Wake Forest.
“It's fun to coach this team,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said afterward, and why not?
It has to be more fun than coaching the UNC team that stumbled through last season, one that lost faith in its coaching staff and then lost faith in each other amid a long, losing 6-7 season. Fedora has made a habit of prefacing answers to media questions with “the 2015 Tar Heels ...”
As in, the 2015 Tar Heels had never lost a game at Georgia Tech, which before a couple of weeks ago held an eight-game home winning streak against UNC. Or, the 2015 Tar Heels have never lost against an in-state opponent – the kind that have given other UNC teams fits in recent years.
Fedora's habit of prefacing answers that way is part gimmick but larger part philosophy – his way of distancing this particular team from the ills that have defined recent seasons. Yet here it was at the end of the first quarter on Saturday night, trailing lowly Wake Forest 7-0.
At the end of the first quarter the Tar Heels had two turnovers, no points and the Demon Deacons had the lead. If there were thoughts in the Kenan Stadium stands of “here we go again” or “I've seen this show before,” they wouldn't have been unfounded.
For one, UNC has made a habit of getting off to slow starts. That has happened often during Fedora's four seasons. So, too, has something else unfortunate for the Tar Heels: losses in games they probably should win.
There was one of those earlier this season – a 17-13 defeat against South Carolina in Charlotte, where the Tar Heels committed three turnovers in the red zone, two of them end-zone interceptions. That followed troubling defeats against Wake Forest in 2012 and against East Carolina in 2013 and any number of games a season ago.
On Saturday night, though, UNC did something different. Or, rather, something that just might be becoming the norm for this particular Tar Heels team: It withstood some early turmoil – those two Marquise Williams interceptions, Wake's early touchdown – and then thrived.
Between the first and second quarters, there was no panic, no angst, Fedora said.
“Just play and we'll be OK,” he said he told his team. “And that's what we did.”
In some ways the first quarter couldn't have gone much worse for UNC on Saturday. It generated little offensively, allowed an upset-minded team to take the lead and squandered any momentum it might have attempted to carry over from the theatrics earlier this month in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.
Yet the Tar Heels had little trouble creating new momentum, starting with the first play of the second quarter. That was a 57-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Mack Hollins and, all of a sudden, it was tie game.
In one play in the second quarter the Tar Heels nearly equaled their offensive output from the first quarter. And then the yards, and the points, kept coming.
UNC's next drive ended with a 13-yard touchdown run from Williams. And its next drive ended with a 36-yard touchdown run from Elijah Hood. And its next drive ended with T.J. Logan's 1-yard touchdown run.
By the end of the second quarter, UNC had scored 29 points on four touchdown drives – none of them lasting longer than five plays or two minutes. Ideally the Tar Heels would have began the onslaught sooner but, nonetheless, they entered halftime with a 29-14 lead – which proved to be more than enough against the Demon Deacons' feeble offense, which ranks as one of the worst in the ACC.
“We knew we wanted to come in and dominate,” said Williams, who passed for 282 yards, ran for 59 and accounted for four touchdowns.
He referenced a Wake Forest assistant “badmouthing” UNC on Twitter over its academic and athletic scandals. Williams said he and his team took note of it, remembered it and waited for this opportunity on Saturday.
“We knew that when you come to the Tar Pit you need to back that up,” Williams said, using the nickname for UNC's student section. “... We're going to come out and execute and we're going to hit you in the mouth and send you on your way.”
The thing about Saturday, though, is that Wake Forest struck first. It intercepted a pass on UNC's first possession and then another, off a deflected pass at the line of scrimmage, on the Tar Heels second possession. Amid the turnovers the Demon Deacons took the lead.
Was this the start of another underwhelming performance against underwhelming competition? The start of another loss against an in-state opponent that UNC has usually dominated throughout history?
It wasn't, it turned out. The Tar Heels were averaging more than 10 yards per play before they put in their backups early in the fourth quarter. They gained 568 yards against a Wake Forest defense that had allowed, on average, the 15th-fewest yards nationally before Saturday.
“The difference is that we've showed we can play through adversity,” said Dajaun Drennon, the UNC defensive lineman. “And if we start off slow we won't let that get us down. We take adversity as good thing. We almost seem like we want to put ourselves in adversity just to prove that we can get out of it. “Which is kind of weird but it's kind of what happens.”
For the first 15 minutes on Saturday night the Tar Heels faltered. The struggles led to familiar questions. Then came definitive answers, and the onslaught.
Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, firstname.lastname@example.org