There were no words of encouragement, no trite motivational cliches, because Larry Fedora knew the situation and Nick Weiler knew what he had to do, and what good were words, anyway?
“What would I say?” Fedora said later, after some of the delirium wore off. “We need you to make it? What would I say? I can’t tell you. Because there’s nothing to say.”
These were North Carolina’s circumstances in the final moments on Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium, where Florida State hadn’t lost in four seasons: Four seconds on the clock, the ball on the 37-yard line, the Tar Heels, so desperately longing for a marquee victory, trailing by a point.
Earlier, Weiler, the UNC senior kicker, had told Fedora his range. He felt good from the 35-yard line and in. Just get to the 35. And here the Tar Heels were, 2 yards short. No matter.
Fedora, whose teams had faltered on grand stages during the past year against Georgia and against Baylor and against Clemson, considered no other alternative. With UNC seeking its first road victory over a top-15 team in seven years, there was no other choice.
Either Weiler would make a 54-yard field goal as time expired. Or UNC would lose.
And so Weiler lined up. Kyle Murphy’s snap was good. Joey Mangili’s hold was good. Weiler approached, planted and he said he only knew it was good when the referee raised his arms, finalizing the Tar Heels’ 37-35 victory.
Weiler said he “blacked out.” His mind went blank, even though moments before he had been preparing his celebration. That, he said, was part of his mental routine – the positive visualization.
He imagined the moment on the sideline. When the time came, he pictured it again.
“Leading up to it,” said Weiler, who’d never made an attempt longer than 49 yards, “it was all about having good confidence, hoping the offense would give me a chance. Kind of thinking about, OK, you’re going to hit this kick, you’re going to drill it right down the middle.
“What are you going to do after?”
Well, he knew he wanted to hug his special teams colleagues: Murphy and Mangili. What he didn’t know, though, is that after he made the kick he’d begin sprinting around the field, down the sideline and into the end zone, waving his arm, doing Florida State’s tomahawk chop while his teammates chased after him..
Weiler said he didn’t remember doing that. What remained of a crowd of about 78,000 – some left with the Tar Heels (4-1, 2-0 ACC) leading 21-0 in the second quarter, and then 28-14 in the third – had just been doing the chop, with so much enthusiasm, moments before.
That was when the 12th-ranked Seminoles (3-2, 0-2) took a 35-34 lead with 23 seconds to play. They took that lead because after UNC’s final touchdown, which came with 2½ minutes remaining, Weiler’s extra point was blocked.
“Most likely I didn’t get it high enough,” he said.
For a few brief moments he retreated to the sideline and sulked. Fedora didn’t have any words for Weiler on his final kick, but he did then, in the seconds after that failed extra point. Fedora approached his kicker on the sideline, with the Tar Heels’ final drive about to begin.
“I said look, you’ve got to get it out of your head,” Fedora said. “He got his mind right, and we knew we had to get it somewhere close to the 35 to give him a shot.”
UNC’s final possession started on its own 25-yard line with 23 seconds remaining. By then the Tar Heels had surrendered a 21-0 lead. Their two-touchdown lead midway through the third quarter was but a memory.
Defeat stared at them after a trail of gaffes, including a roughing the punter penalty that kept alive a Seminoles’ touchdown drive that helped turn the momentum early in the fourth quarter. Now here the Tar Heels had one last chance.
“Just do what we do in practice,” Mitch Trubisky, the UNC quarterback, said of how he approached that final possession. “Twenty-three seconds. We knew we had at least two or three plays to get down there, two timeouts.”
Trubisky, as brilliant as he was a week ago in another dramatic victory against Pittsburgh, completed a pass to Mack Hollins for 23 yards. That put UNC on its own 48.
Not long after Trubisky, who completed 31 of his 38 attempts for 405 yards and three touchdowns, attempted his final pass, to Hollins. It fell incomplete but a pass interference penalty gave the Tar Heels a first down on the Seminoles’ 37-yard line.
The Tar Heels took a timeout with four seconds left. Weiler went through his pre-kick routine.
The time came. T.J. Logan, the senior running back who ran for one touchdown and caught another, stood by himself on the sideline, near the 50-yard line. He wanted to have a good view.
Trubisky and Ryan Switzer, who caught 14 passes for 158 yards, found each other, two close friends and roommates. They linked arms and knelt. They both said they prayed. Fedora kept his distance.
“I really didn’t want to even look at it,” he said, of the attempt.
When he did he saw it glide through and saw the referee raise his arms, the chaotic celebration already beginning, Weiler starting his sprint, the Tar Heels starting to savor the kind of victory that had eluded them for so long.