After what was perhaps the most important victory of his tenure at North Carolina, Larry Fedora walked into his postgame press conference looking for a chair and perhaps a quiet moment to compose himself or take in what he’d just witnessed.
“I need to sit down, I’m telling you,” he said while he approached a podium after the Tar Heels’ 38-31 victory against Georgia Tech on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The Tar Heels arrived here having lost eight consecutive games at Georgia Tech. They left with their largest come-from-behind win in school history, but not before they gathered in one corner of the field to celebrate and holler and jump into the stands and dance while the UNC band played on.
Somewhere in the middle of it all was Marquise Williams, the Tar Heels’ fifth-year senior quarterback. He’d been benched last week in a victory against Delaware, and he’d faced questions about his starting position, about his ability to lead Fedora’s offense.
Williams answered those questions Saturday with 148 yards rushing, 134 passing and three touchdowns – two of them running and one of them on a 37-yard reception – that gave UNC a 31-28 lead with 11 1/2 minutes to play.
And so he climbed into the stands and surrounded himself in adulation.
“He was a beast today,” Fedora said of Williams. “ … You know, he took a lot of criticism last week. Everybody questioned him out there on the outside. And he did what he can do.”
The postgame scene was fitting, expected even, given the misery UNC had long endured here and what it overcame on Saturday. After its third offensive possession, Georgia Tech led 21-0, and for UNC it looked like here-we-go-again: another game in Atlanta, another familiar result.
Then the Tar Heels (4-1, 1-0) cut their deficit to 21-7 with a 75-yard scoring drive that ended with a short Elijah Hood touchdown run, and after a defensive stop cut it to 21-14 with Williams’ 7-yard run with less a minute to play before halftime. Suddenly, the Tar Heels had life and hope, although they said afterward they never lost it.
Trailing 21-0, senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said, “No one blinked an eye.”
“No one was panicking,” he said. “No one was yelling at each other on the sideline. It was all business. It was all, ‘We’re going to win this game.’ ”
The Tar Heels’ comeback had a little bit of everything: a goal line stand on fourth down and a critical fourth down conversion. It had a momentum-turning turnover and head-turning trick play – the one on which Williams caught that 37-yard touchdown.
That came on a pass from Quinshad Davis, the senior receiver, and it came moments after Junior Gnonkonde, a junior defensive end, recovered a fumble and returned it 20 yards to the Georgia Tech 37-yard line. Gnonkonde had committed out of high school to play at Georgia Tech (2-3, 0-2), but the school pulled his scholarship offer weeks before signing day.
After his fumble recovery, the call came in for the pass from Davis on a double-reverse.
“I’m like, ‘yes,’ ” Davis said, stretching out the word. “... Man, every time we call that play, I’m thinking touchdown. Because don’t nobody expect that … they should, though, right?”
As unexpected as that play was, the greatest surprise might have been UNC’s defensive turnaround. It didn’t have an answer for Georgia Tech’s triple option offense in the first half and allowed 204 yards rushing.
In the second half, though, the Tar Heels surrendered 51 yards rushing. The Yellow Jackets scored their final touchdown early in the third quarter, and four of their final five drives ended without any points. The defensive strategy didn’t change, Schoettmer said.
Quite the contrary. At halftime Gene Chizik, the defensive coordinator, told his players they didn’t have time to make changes.
“Gene, after the coaches talked and he talked to the players, he said, ‘Hey, we’re not really changing anything,’” Fedora said. “You guys, get off of blocks, do the job you’re supposed to do.’ And that’s what they did.”
After Williams’ touchdown catch, UNC’s defense stopped Georgia Tech again. Moments later the Tar Heels faced a fourth-and-5 from the Yellow Jackets’ 27, and from there Williams took the snap, broke through the line of scrimmage, dodged a few defenders and scored on a 27-yard run.
Less than three minutes remained and UNC could feel it: the end of a long, miserable road drought against a conference rival. And the emotion that can only come in a victory in the most improbable of circumstances. It was emotional for Williams, too, for other reasons.
Earlier in the week Fedora had pulled him aside and told him to play like he did last season.
“Come out and you put on a show,” Williams said. “And I’m just like, man, when it’s ACC play I’m ready to go. It’s sad to say that, but that’s just true. When it’s conference (play), I’m ready to go. I’m pumped, ready, excited. And I came out with a sting in my eyes, like it’s time to get this victory.”
Afterward Fedora spoke some of what UNC had experienced last year amid a long, losing season that ended with players turning against each other, and their coaching staff. His team had come a long way. Here was the proof, he said.
Down 21-0 late in the second quarter, the ending seemed assured. Then UNC rewrote that ending, and finished with a victory it hopes will represent something of a turning point – if not for the overall program then at least for a season.
“Any time you’re down 21 on the road in the first half against an ACC opponent and come back and win,” Schoettmer said, “I don’t know how many teams can say they do that. And that just shows the chemistry we’ve built and how much we care about each other.
“And how much we refuse to let each other down.”
After UNC cleared out of its locker room, the celebration continued outside the stadium gates, where players’ families and friends had gathered. The Tar Heels boarded their bus and left with what might have been the most unlikely victory in school history.