Marquise Williams and his teammates at North Carolina knew by Thursday that they’d begin their game Saturday against Duke with what they like to call a “gadget play,” but they weren’t sure they’d actually run it until the seconds before it began.
And so the moment came early in the first quarter, when Williams took his place in the shotgun and scanned the defense. The Tar Heels’ coaches on the sideline looked things over from where they stood. Then a signaler relayed the official word: The flea-flicker was a go.
Earlier in the week, the mere mention of the play made Williams’ eyes grow large. His thought when he found out his coaches’ plan: “Wow,” he said, “this can’t be the first play.”
Then it began. Williams handed off to Elijah Hood, who flipped the ball back to Williams. Williams threw long over the middle to Ryan Switzer, who caught the pass, wide open, and sprinted for an 89-yard touchdown that took about 12 seconds to develop, start to finish.
“We like to start fast,” Hood said after UNC’s emphatic 66-31 victory, “and what better way to start fast than go (89) yards down the field on the first play of the game?”
He was great today. ... He did a great job of leading today. His passing was pinpoint today.
UNC coach Larry Fedora on QB Marquise Williams
UNC’s win was defined by plays like that – long, game-changing plays that helped the Tar Heels set records and pile on points, more than it had scored in any ACC game. And it all began with the flea flicker, the gadget coach Larry Fedora pulled from his trick bag.
Fedora had been waiting at least a week and a half to use it. It was going to be UNC’s first play, too, in a victory at Pittsburgh nine days earlier, but the Panthers’ defensive alignment forced the Tar Heels to change their plan.
Not this time. When UNC lined up for its first play against Duke, Fedora and his staff saw what they wanted to see. So did Williams and the other 10 offensive players who took their positions around him.
Earlier in the week, they had watched Duke’s defense on film. On the flea-flicker, Williams expected Duke’s boundary safety, Deondre Singleton, to come toward the line of scrimmage as soon as Williams handed off to Hood. And that’s precisely what happened.
“Elijah, he sells the run very well,” Williams said. “And we knew that when (the safety approached the line) and he came down, it was going to be a touchdown. And Switzer did a heck of a job of slow-playing the linebackers and the safeties, just to get wide open.”
In one play, UNC had generated 89 yards of offense. By the end of the first quarter, the Tar Heels had more than 200 yards. And by halftime they had 486 yards – more than Duke had allowed in any game this season.
Williams also threw a 74-yard touchdown pass to Mack Hollins and a 49-yard touchdown pass, with one second remaining before the end of the second quarter, to Bug Howard. The passes were accurate and well-timed.
Each of those long ones – to Switzer, Hollins and Howard – arrived at their destinations with the receiver running in stride. By halftime, Williams had thrown for 404 yards. By UNC’s first drive of the third quarter, he’d set a new school record for passing yards (494) in a single game.
After the Tar Heels took a 59-17 lead with about five minutes to play in the third quarter, Williams came out of the game. Fedora at times has been slow to praise Williams, and at times quick to criticize his decision-making, or throws. There was nothing to find fault with on Saturday.
“He was great today,” Fedora said of Williams. “... He did a great job of leading today. His passing was pinpoint today.”
The Tar Heels’ passing offense was so dominant that the game was for the most part decided at halftime, when UNC held a 38-10 lead. It grew to 45-10 a few minutes into the second half when Hood ended a drive with a 16-yard touchdown run.
Between the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth, after Fedora had pulled Williams and many of UNC’s other starters, Williams and some of his teammates began celebrating, motioning to the student section while music blared, urging a sold-out Kenan Stadium crowd to make noise.
404 Passing yards for Marquise Williams in the first half
It was only a matter of time before UNC completed what was likely its most impressive, complete victory in Fedora’s four seasons. Williams denied the Tar Heels made a statement, but their play on Saturday offered a contrasting opinion.
“We’re still irrelevant,” he said afterward. “And we like that. We like to be irrelevant. It keeps a chip on our shoulder.”
The Tar Heels played as if they were angry on Saturday. The rout grew larger, it seemed, with every long play, and there were no shortage of them. The Tar Heels finished with six pass completions of at least 35 yards, and their 704 yards of offense were the third-most in school history.
The onslaught began at the very beginning, with the flea-flicker. After Hood tossed the ball back to Williams, he could have taken his pick of receivers. Not only was Switzer running open but Hollins was, too.
When Switzer made the catch, Hollins sprinted behind, wanting to be there for the celebration.
“We love taking those shots early in the game,” Hollins said.
On the sideline after that play, Fedora felt a bit of apprehension.
“I was thinking that we better not have a letdown,” he said. “When you do something like that, a lot of times the guys will let down.”
He said he was “fired up” and “mad,” and his team played that way, too, as if it had something to prove.