It had been nearly two months — 56 days to be exact— since North Carolina last won a game.
The win came against Pittsburgh, 38-35, on Sept. 22 at Kenan Memorial Stadium, when UNC’s season was still alive. But UNC lost six consecutive games after that, ending a season that might have had promise, had a couple of things gone right.
Five of its losses came by 10 points or less, and UNC could never quite get over the hump. That was until Saturday when it beat Western Carolina 49-26 at Kenan Memorial Stadium.
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“I’m excited for our players. I really am, UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “I’m excited that they’re getting to enjoy it tonight. I’m excited that there is some reward at the end of all their hard work.”
UNC gained 654 total yards, including 358 yards passing. Junior quarterback Nathan Elliott was 18-24 for 308 yards and two touchdowns. He also had two interceptions.
“We put in so much work, and you’ve seen every game that we’ve been in has been close,” Elliott said. “Everyone just kept fighting, and this locker room deserves that win.”
UNC freshman running back Javonte Williams, who led the team in rushing, had 93 yards on 17 carries and three touchdowns.
The true freshman got extra playing time because junior running back Antonio Williams was out with a foot injury, and sophomore running back Michael Carter went down with an injury in the first half. Carter did not return.
UNC (2-8, 1-6 ACC) has one final game against rival N.C. State (7-3, 4-3) next week.
The Tar Heels’ win on Saturday against the Catamounts was expected. WCU, an FCS program, has struggled within its own conference. The Catamounts entered the game 3-7, and eighth out of nine teams in the Southern Conference. Last season, UNC dominated Western Carolina 65-10.
But this game did not go as smoothly.
UNC committed three turnovers in the first half — two interceptions and a fumble — and WCU twice turned those turnovers into scores.
“Obviously I’m very excited about this win, but to be honest with you, I’m not very excited with my performance,” Elliott said. “Those two interceptions are the only thing I’m thinking about after that game, so I’ve got to get that cleaned up.”
WCU was about to go into halftime down by two scores.
However, UNC got the ball inside WCU’s 40-yard line with five seconds left in the first half. UNC coach Larry Fedora put in senior walk-on quarterback Manny Miles to throw a Hail Mary pass to the endzone. The pass was almost from the same spot as last week, when UNC had a chance to tie the game against Duke.
In that game, Fedora put in his freshman quarterback Cade Fortin to make the pass, but it was batted down by a Blue Devils’ defender.
In this game the pass was successful. It was deflected initially, but fell into the hands of UNC tight end Jake Bargas, who was in the endzone for the touchdown.
And instead, UNC led WCU at halftime 35-16.
That was all the Tar Heels needed. They scored 14 points in the second half, while the Catamounts scored 10 points.
The Catamounts finished with 433 total yards.
UNC was able to go deep into its bench on Saturday. Miles, whose father is former LSU coach Les Miles, played the entire fourth quarter. He finished 2-4 for 50 yards and one touchdown.
Fortin, the freshman quarterback, did not play on Saturday, presumably to preserve his redshirt. A new NCAA rule allows players to play in up to four games before they can redshirt. Fortin has played in three games this season, including a start against Virginia Tech on Oct. 13.
He is 13-24 for 112 yards this season, and if healthy, could play against N.C. State.
But until then, the Tar Heels enjoyed their win, happy to finally get over the hump.