Maybe it was the best performance of his collegiate career, but North Carolina freshman running back Michael Carter still received grief.
He was so close to completely breaking away. The first snap of the second half in UNC’s 20-14 loss to Virginia, Carter got the handoff from quarterback Brandon Harris and took off down the left side of the field, bursting through holes in the Cavaliers defense and breaking an arm tackle.
After that, nothing but grass. And the Virginia defender sprinting behind him.
Carter tried to use Kenan Stadium’s jumbotron to dodge the defender, veering to the left as he closed in on the end zone. But Virginia brought him down at the 11-yard line. Carter went on to give UNC its first score of the game with two more runs, even though he failed to finish that run.
“I’m gonna hear about it,” Carter said with a smile.
From whom? Carter pointed to his brother, Harding University junior running back Dwayne Carter, who was standing by the window in the media room wearing a light blue polo shirt. His family might be a source of constant support, but who would pass up on the chance to tease a younger brother?
In the first half, Carter’s play wasn’t particularly noteworthy – 8 yards on two carries – but neither was anyone’s performance on the offense. The Tar Heels earned just 75 yards and two third-down conversions in the first half.
But after halftime, that changed, thanks to junior tight end Brandon Fritts.
Fritts reminded the Tar Heels that this is North Carolina football –a program, Fritts said, that is home to exceptional players and teams, a program that demands a standard of excellence. A standard that UNC was not meeting.
“After that half-time speech, I was ready to fight,” Carter said. “I was ready to go to war.”
That’s exactly what Carter did in the first drive of the second half, but he didn’t stop there. In the last three games, Carter has totaled 54 yards in 15 attempts. In the second half against Virginia, Carter rushed for 149 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.
And two offensive drives after his first touchdown run, Carter got another look – the Virginia defense ran a blitz identical to one UNC practiced against during a walk-through in Friday’s practice. But in practice, Carter misread the play.
“Hey, it’s not going to be there,” running backs coach DeAndre Smith told him. “It’s going to be here.”
Carter adjusted accordingly. And when he saw the play in game-time, he burst past the defenders for a 47-yard touchdown run.
“They blitzed, and the offense set up a nice wall,” Carter said. “All you gotta do is ride the wave.”
By the end, Carter ran for 157 yards, making up 61.1 percent of UNC’s total yardage. And his two touchdowns accounted for UNC’s only scores against Virginia.
North Carolina came a couple of missed opportunities away from a win. UNC is stuck in a four-game losing streak, but Carter has remained positive. After all, he’s grateful just to play. And in UNC’s loss, Carter got more than triple the carries he’d run in the last two games.
“Great kid,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “Comes to practice every day with a smile on his face, works his butt off. You know, has a great attitude. And he made some plays, so we kept him in there, kept giving him the ball.”
In an offense that was stagnant for most of Saturday, Carter was the spark. Still, that doesn’t make him immune to flak from his family. Dwayne Carter will still comment on the breakaway run that was 11 yards shy of becoming a touchdown. What will Carter’s response be?
“I’m not gonna have one,” he said, grinning.
But then again, he doesn’t need a retort. He’s already made his point.