Jeff Schoettmer noticed the scoreboard in the first quarter, and if the numbers looked familiar, it may be because the North Carolina linebacker had them written on his calendar for a year.
That was the measure of how far North Carolina fell last season, a dismal defeat on its home turf to N.C. State.
That was the measure of how far the Tar Heels have come since then. It was not the final score against the Wolfpack on Saturday. It was the first-quarter score against the Wolfpack on Saturday.
“We wanted to come out and make a statement that we’re not the same team we were last year,” Schoettmer said. “They were talking in the media all week, ‘This is the same team they were last year.’ We wanted to prove to them that we weren’t. And that this is our state.”
It took the Tar Heels less than a quarter to make that clear on their way to a 45-34 win Saturday over N.C. State and an undisputed state title.
Saturday was the apex of North Carolina’s amazing turnaround, a rivalry that went from 35-7 to 35-7, a defense that went from silly to solid, team chemistry that went from toxic to tenacious, from 6-7 to 11-1 and counting.
“Blue-collar school … hands-in-the-dirt school” is how N.C. State coach Dave Doeren described his program last year, luxuriating in the glow of that win in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels, a year later, proceeded to serve Doeren his own words on a platter.
You want blue collar? How about 378 rushing yards. Elijah Hood had 220 yards and two touchdowns Saturday. T.J. Logan had 100 yards and two touchdowns.
“We really had a statement to make out there that we were a physical football team, that we can be physical and bring physicality on the football field,” Hood said. “Especially against a team that tries to hang their hats on that. I think we got them good today.”
N.C. State was definitely a something-in-the-dirt football team Saturday. Face mashed into it. Buried under 6 feet of it in the first quarter after North Carolina scored touchdowns on its first five possessions.
The Tar Heels were never able to sustain that pace, limping slightly toward next Saturday’s ACC Championship against undefeated Clemson after a questionable second-half performance. To the Wolfpack’s credit, it never gave up, never stopped fighting, even when its best defense seemed to be a long drive that ended with no points. After the fabled 35-7 score, N.C. State scored the next 16 points, only for the Tar Heels to answer with Hood’s second touchdown.
North Carolina came into the season with two goals: Win the Coastal Division, win the mythical state title. The Tar Heels never stumbled on either, closing out the season with 11 straight wins after that baffling – and humbling – opening loss to South Carolina, especially within these borders: 50-14 over Wake Forest, 66-31 over Duke, 45-34 over N.C. State.
New goals await. An ACC title. A “New Year’s 6” bowl. Depending on results elsewhere later Saturday and the unpredictable jiggery-pokery of the arbitrary and inscrutable College Football Playoff committee, perhaps even an unlikely spot in a national semifinal.
“I don’t know how much we control that,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “We’ve done everything that we can do to this point. Now we’ve got to go and play the No. 1 team in the country. If that happens, I think we would be very well deserved to be in the playoff, no doubt about it in my mind.”
A year after what may have been their darkest moment, the Tar Heels came out the other side having achieved everything they set out to do, having reversed their course, having taken control of their fate, with only the amazing unknown ahead.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock