North Carolina coach Larry Fedora is a man who likes countdowns and dates and so he probably knew it had been 42 days since the Tar Heels had won – days mostly filled with misery and disappointment, with longing, with hope and talk of better things to come.
And they did, finally, on Saturday night – a 48-43 victory against Georgia Tech, and UNC's first victory since Sept. 6 against San Diego State. The win snapped UNC's four-game losing streak and provides hope that maybe, perhaps, a second-half turnaround – like last season – is within the realm.
“Huge,” Fedora said afterward, after describing a different atmosphere in his team's locker room, one of celebration instead of somberness. “We needed this more than anything right now. You guys know what we've been doing and what we've been going through. We needed this.”
Fedora spoke of last week, and that seven-point loss at Notre Dame. There, he said, his players “guts were ripped out” after a game UNC (3-4, 1-2 ACC) led in the fourth quarter. It almost happened again.
For a long while in the second half, the game had the feel that whichever team had possession last – with enough time – would win. And that's pretty much how it happened, with UNC scoring the winning touchdown with 11 seconds left on T.J. Logan's 2-yard run.
Logan's touchdown ended a 12-play, 75-yard drive – a drive that came after Georgia Tech (5-2, 2-2) took a 43-42 lead on a 75-yard run, on a reverse, from DeAndre Smelter with 3:07 to play.
UNC then began its next drive on its own 25 and Marquise Williams – who followed the best game of his career, a week ago, with an even better one on Saturday – led the Tar Heels past midfield, and then inside the Yellow Jackets' 25.
“Quise (is) a baller,” Ryan Switzer, the sophomore receiver, said with a smile. “Plain and simple.”
Williams was efficient and calm, at least, under pressure. He led the Tar Heels past midfield and then, after a 15-yard pass to Romar Morris and a personal foul penalty on Georgia Tech, UNC had a first-and-goal on the 4 with 20 seconds to play.
Moments later, Logan scored. And, not long after that, the Yellow Jackets simply ran out of time.
“This is where the best quarterbacks perform – under pressure, when you're down,” Williams said of UNC's final drive. “I knew I had to just move it down, move it down. Just keep moving the chains.”
And so ended UNC's first victory in a while – one that will be remembered for its dramatic ending and also for Williams' performance. His 463 yards of total offense was the second-most in school history – second to his 469 a season ago against Old Dominion.
Williams completed 38 of his 47 attempts for 390 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for 73 yards and another touchdown.
After Georgia Tech took the lead late, Fedora and Williams spoke briefly. Fedora said Williams reminded him that he had done this kind of thing plenty of times before – in practice, at least – and that this would be no different.
“He said we do this every week, it's no big deal,” Fedora said. “And he's right. I mean, we work two minute every week. And we've been doing that since the first day that we got here. And he's comfortable with it.”
The Tar Heels' victory ended Georgia Tech's five-game winning streak in the series. The Yellow Jackets, before Saturday, had won 14 of the past 16 meetings, and it looked like they might win again after Smelter's long touchdown run.
But that's how it was at Kenan Stadium – back and forth and back again. The teams combined to punt just twice in the second half and, other than that, they traded touchdown drive for touchdown drive. Though it wasn't always that way.
Fedora and his players earlier in the week spoke of the importance of avoiding three-and-outs, and avoiding turnovers. So naturally, given the kind of season it has been for the Tar Heels, they punted quickly on their first drive and then committed a turnover on their second drive.
For once, though, the bad was not a sign of things to come. No, what came after those first two drives was UNC's most efficient offensive performance of the season – a prolonged stretch where UNC executed with the kind of efficiency and success it believed would happen long ago.
After those first two drives, the Tar Heels scored touchdowns on seven of their final nine drives, and they had success in a variety of ways: through the air and on the ground, with short, quick-hitting drives and long, grind-it-out ones.
There were two touchdown passes to Switzer, who finished with nine receptions for 136 yards and, on a fourth down early in the fourth quarter, Williams threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Mack Hollins, who out-jumped a defender to make the play.
The Tar Heels (579 yards) and Yellow Jackets (611) combined for 1,190 yards of offense – a Kenan Stadium record. Rarely was the time that either team stopped the other, though UNC's defensive stop in the third quarter allowed it to build a double-digit lead – which proved important later.
The defensive struggles were the same for UNC but the result different. It delivered under pressure, when it most needed to make something happen. The game-winning drive lasted a little less than three minutes and, finally, the Tar Heels had something to celebrate and savor.