North Carolina sputtered for long stretches on Saturday night against Liberty – a botched punt that led to a safety, a confounding penalty that led to a touchdown, a fumble that led directly to another.
Midway through the third quarter, the Tar Heels were losing against a lower-division opponent. Kenan Stadium was silent. Doubt, perhaps, was creeping in.
And then everything changed. UNC, which at times could do nothing right during the first 2 1/2 quarters, all of a sudden could do no wrong. The Flames helped, too, imploding while UNC took control and took over in the pivotal moments of a 56-29 victory.
At times, it wasn’t pretty for the Tar Heels (1-0). In the first half, a high snap on punt led to a safety, and an illegal substitution penalty out of a timeout allowed Liberty to take the lead, briefly, moments before halftime. Then, in the third quarter, the Flames took the lead again.
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The relatively sparse crowd in Kenan Stadium sat quietly when Jacob Hagen, a safety, returned a fumble 27 yards for a touchdown that gave Liberty a 22-21 lead with about 9 1/2 minutes to play in the third quarter. Hagen’s return came after Quinshad Davis, UNC’s usually reliable junior receiver, caught a pass and then lost it while he was tackled.
To that point, the Tar Heels looked out of synch and flat and neither Marquise Williams nor Mitch Trubisky, the quarterbacks who spent the spring and the preseason competing for the starting job, had played particularly well.
By then, UNC had committed turnovers. The Tar Heels had made the kind of mistakes that cost them in close defeats in coach Larry Fedora’s first two seasons.
“We've just got to be better,” said Ryan Switzer, the sophomore receiver who finished with a team-high eight receptions. “We've got to clean up those things. ... We've got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. That's been a problem for us the past couple of years.”
Eventually on Saturday, UNC stopped hurting itself. The game changed.
Not immediately after Hagen’s return. But not long after, either.
It took long enough. The Tar Heels had been waiting to take control. Players looked up at the scoreboard midway through the third quarter, saw they were losing, and there was a sense of shock - a sense, Williams said, that “it’s time to get rolling.”
“That's what flashed in my eyes, like oh, man, we really are losing,” he said. “And those guys came to play ball. We knew we had to step it up. It was getting ugly.”
On UNC’s second drive after Liberty (0-1) took the lead – its final lead, it turned out – Williams, who started and played most of the game, completed two passes, the second of which was a short pass to Mack Hollins, a receiver who originally joined the team as a walk-on. He sprinted down the left sideline for a 33-yard touchdown that gave UNC a 28-22 lead.
And then, 13 seconds later, Jeff Schoettmer, the Tar Heels’ middle linebacker, stepped in front of Josh Woodrum’s pass and intercepted it. Schoettmer maneuvered his way into clear space and into the end zone after a 19-yard return. UNC led 35-22.
And then, Six seconds after that, Liberty running back Todd Macon fumbled. He failed to maintain control while Junior Gnonkonde, a UNC defensive end who only started playing football in high school after moving to the United States from Africa, collided into him and the Tar Heels recovered.
And then, A little more than two minutes after that, Williams, who completed 19 of his 29 attempts for 169 yards, two touchdown passes and two interceptions, scored on a 15-yard touchdown run that gave UNC a 42-22 lead. At that point, the Tar Heels had scored 21 points in two minutes and 8 seconds.
They weren’t done, though. Because 49 seconds after Williams’ second scoring run, Liberty fumbled again. And UNC recoverd again. And 52 seconds after that, after UNC forcedyet another turnover, Trubisky, who completed 10 of his 16 attempts for 66 yards, threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jack Tabb. Then the Tar Heels led 49-21 – 28 points in a little less than four minutes.
And that’s how the Tar Heels saved themselves on Saturday – with a four-minute stretch of forced turnovers and touchdowns that likely matches, or exceeds, any such stretch in school history. It was unclear afterward where those four minutes stood in school history, and whether UNC had ever scored as many points in as little time.
Outside of those four minutes, though?
“We've got a long way to go,” said Larry Fedora, UNC’s coach. “I mean, we've got a long way to go. It's nothing pretty about that game, I can assure you, when you go outside of that four minutes. But again, for us – the way we look at it, it's a win.”
Fedora credited an emotional locker room scene at halftime for inspiring the turnaround. It took a while to transpire, even then. Nonetheless, Schoettmer said, UNC’s baffling play for 2 1/2 quarters “didn’t faze us.”
The final score seemed lopsided in the end, the kind of margin one might have expected in a game against an FCS opponent. The Tar Heels forced six turnovers. Midway through the third quarter, though, the Tar Heels were losing, in search of some life, and Liberty had hope that maybe it could secure its most significant victory in school history.
The Flames had beaten two FBS opponents – Eastern Michigan and Ball State – and they had been close against Wake Forest in 2012, losing by three. They held leads on Saturday late in the first half, and midway through the third quarter.
And then UNC broke the game open with an inspired, decisive four-minute stretch that didn’t erase the Tar Heels’ earlier mistakes, but rendered them meaningless to the outcome.