Two games into a season that began with grand aspirations, North Carolina has found a winning formula: play poorly for long stretches, and play from behind, and play without the kind of energy and execution that coach Larry Fedora expects.
And then win, anyway. The Tar Heels did that against Liberty in their first game of the season, and they did it again on Saturday night in a 31-27 victory against San Diego State at Kenan Stadium.
UNC trailed by a touchdown at halftime against the Aztecs, and then trailed 21-7 early in the third quarter before rallying with 17 fourth-quarter points. The Tar Heels didn’t secure victory, either, until Tim Scott, a senior safety, intercepted a pass in the end zone with 14 seconds to play, ending a San Diego State drive that began on its own 25-yard line and reached the Tar Heels’ 3.
“What a game,” Fedora said. “... We got a win. That's about all I can say. We'll learn a lot of things from this game. We made enough mistakes to lose the game, but we made enough plays to win the game.”
And most of them came late – none later than Scott's interception. That was one of a few highlights for UNC’s defense, which allowed more than 500 yards but also scored a touchdown on a 100-yard interception return from Brian Walker, a sophomore cornerback, in the second quarter.
Scott's interception, though, is the one people will remember – and the one that clinched a victory that for a long time seemed in doubt. Quinn Kaehler, the Aztecs' sophomore quarterback, had a man open, briefly, in the end zone on what turned out to be his team's final offensive play.
But Kaehler, facing some pressure, couldn't get the throw off in time. And when he did, Scott, playing man-to-man defense, jumped the route and intercepted the pass, catching it just before his momentum took him out of bounds. Officials reviewed the play and it stood.
“Emotional,” Scott said of his interception, and the emotion streamed out of him while he sprinted down the field after the play ended, his teammates jumping around him. “We played pretty bad this game, I want to say, as a team. We weren't really energized. When we came to play, it showed.”
Scott's interception punctuated UNC's second-half turnaround. After not doing much of anything for two and a half quarters, the Tar Heels (2-0) gradually worked their way back and generated the kind of offense they’d lacked for long stretches.
No play turned the momentum more than Marquise Williams’ 91-yard touchdown pass earlier in the fourth quarter to Mack Hollins, a receiver who arrived at UNC as a walk-on. Hollins beat the Aztecs' young and inexperienced secondary, caught Williams’ pass in stride and sprinted for the end zone.
The play, which cut the Aztecs’ lead to 24-21 with 13 minutes, 45 seconds to play, was the Tar Heels’ longest passing touchdown in Kenan Stadium history.
“Just knew we had to get a shot,” said Williams, the fourth-year junior who completed 20 of his 29 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns. “We had to go for a shot. The guys were playing mainly eight in the box, and just one high safety. And we knew if we play-action that safety, get him the bite down we can go up top.”
The Aztecs (1-1) stretched their lead back to six with a field goal on their next drive but, once again, UNC managed to put together a successful drive. Williams completed back-to-back passes to Ryan Switzer, one for 13 yards and another for 24 that moved UNC inside the Azetcs’ 35.
Williams gained 16 yards on a run moments later, then found Hollins, again, for 19-yard gain.
That set up Elijah Hood’s 2-yard touchdown run with about eight minutes to play. The Tar Heels gained 183 yards in the fourth quarter – and did so after managing 108 yards during the first half. That was the fewest yards UNC had gained in a half since the first half at South Carolina last season.
Much like in the first game of the season against Liberty, UNC's second-half success allowed the team to overcome earlier mistakes. But it didn't erase those mistakes. Fedora afterward was quick to point out a running into the kicker penalty that led to an Aztecs first down, and the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that kept alive a San Diego State drive that ended in a touchdown.
“We will get better on the front end,” he said. “We've got a lot of work to do, but we are going to get better.”
Hood's touchdown, his first in college, gave the Tar Heels a 28-27 lead – their first since Brian Walker, the sophomore cornerback, returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.
After Hood's touchdown, Walker intercepted another pass. He was playing in his first game this season, after sitting out the season-opener with three of his teammates – all of whom were suspended amid UNC's investigation into an off-campus altercation among football players at the Aloft Hotel early in the preseason.
Walker wasn't made available for interviews afterward, and a team spokesman said that was Fedora's choice. Fedora, though, said he was “proud” of Walker's performance.
“Him missing the first game really just made him more hungry,” Scott said of Walker. So when he came out here he knew he had something to prove.”
Walker's second interception led to a short field goal that gave UNC a 31-27 lead with four minutes to play. It was hardly over, though.
San Diego State, which finished with 504 yards of offense, methodically drove down the field, the clock ticking, until it was inside the Tar Heels’ 5-yard line. There were less than 20 seconds left when Kaehler, the Aztecs’ sophomore quarterback, dropped back to pass, looking for an open man.
He threw to his left, and Scott was there and then it began – a celebration at the end of a wild victory that for a long while seemed would end with a UNC defeat.