Ryan Switzer had just finished ringing the bell – the Victory Bell, that is, after North Carolina’s 45-20 victory against Duke late Thursday night – when he stood with his back to the wall, surrounded by cameras and microphones and people asking him how this all felt.
He smiled. He took a second to think. And one of his first thoughts was this:
“Gosh,” said Switzer, the Tar Heels’ sophomore receiver. “I just wish we put something like that together earlier in the season.”
That was the prevailing sentiment after the Tar Heels’ most complete, best performance of the season: What took so long? And: Where had these Tar Heels – the ones so dominant at Duke – been all fall?
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Outside of a three-possession stretch in the second quarter that resulted in three turnovers – all fumbles by Marquise Williams, the UNC quarterback – the Tar Heels mostly did what they wanted against Duke.
On offense, they passed and ran with equal ease. Williams, the junior from Charlotte, played well outside of those fumbles, finishing with 374 yards of offense and four touchdowns – two passing and two rushing. UNC ran for 315 yards overall – its most in more than two years.
And then there was the defense – the maligned, beleaguered defense. Statistically, it will either be the worst defense in school history or close to it but, for one night, at least, the Tar Heels didn’t allow the big plays or the long scoring drives that so often doomed them over and over – and over – again in other games.
Entering its regular season finale next week against visiting rival N.C. State, the Tar Heels look like a different team than they were for much of the season. Yet they look like the same team coaches and players talked about during the preseason.
“The type of game we played today,” senior safety Tim Scott said, “was how we were playing all training camp, you know. We’ve had our mistakes throughout the season and we’ve had our losses but today we made sure to show the big improvement we made throughout our defense.”
Scott said he was the first among his teammates to start spray painting the Victory Bell light blue. That’s the tradition – that when the bell changes hands, or teams, the winning team paints it right there on the field.
Duke turned it dark blue two years ago, when it ended an extended streak of futility against the Tar Heels. And then Scott and his fellow seniors, who found themselves with cans of spray paint as the final minutes ticked away on Thursday night, painted the bell a lighter shade on Thursday.
The smell of spray paint lingered on the UNC sideline after time expired. So did a question: Was this the team coach Larry Fedora expected to have all along?
Fedora entered the season saying “it’s time,” and he was referring to his belief that UNC was ready to compete for the Coastal Division championship. That it was ready, at last, to win more than eight games for the first time since 1997.
Then came two sloppy season-opening victories against Liberty and San Diego State. And the debacle of a defeat at East Carolina. And another blowout loss at Clemson. And an uninspired defeat against Virginia Tech.
Outside of a listless defeat at Miami, the Tar Heels have turned around their season – and for the second consecutive season – in the second half. But none of UNC’s other recent victories – ones against Georgia Tech, Virginia and Pitt – resembled the one on Thursday night.
“It was the team that I expected to grow to,” Fedora said. “You know, I didn’t expect it early on because we were too young in too many places. But I think you saw now up front in the offensive line is these guys have started to jell and get better. I mean, 315 yards rushing – even in the defensive front, holding them to 116 yards rushing, that’s pretty dang good.”
There was a lot of good for UNC on Thursday night. Offensively. Defensively.
The Tar Heels played so well that it makes the rest of their season appear more puzzling. The slow start, the 70-41 loss at ECU, the endless parade of big plays the Tar Heels have allowed all season – all of it was like a distant, foggy memory in the haze of UNC’s most dominant performance.
Yet what happened at Duke doesn’t erase what came before. Switzer, the sophomore receiver, understood that better than most. After the humbling defeat at Miami earlier this month Switzer spoke in somber tones about his surprise at how badly the Tar Heels had been humiliated. Now, on Thursday night, he spoke of what he called a “season-changing win.”
“And to knock (Duke) out of the Coastal race and to get bowl eligible in their stadium and take the bell back, I think it doesn’t make amends,” Switzer said. “But it helps the hurting a lot.”