This was it, their final time walking off the field at Kenan Stadium, their final time walking into the tunnel after a game they’d played in and their final time in their home locker room amid these circumstances, the jubilation of a victory still fresh in the moments after it ended.
“Me – I’m honest,” Marquise Williams, the North Carolina quarterback, said on Saturday after the Tar Heels’ 59-21 senior day victory against Miami. “I cried.”
He cried before the game, too, all the while thinking of his past four years at UNC, thinking of lost opportunities and lost games and thinking, also, of what the Tar Heels have become: a formidable challenger in the ACC.
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In his years at UNC Williams has seen the firing of one head coach and the arrival of another. He had left school for a semester for academic reasons and found his way back and become, eventually, the leader of a team that has changed the direction of UNC’s football program.
And so before his final home game he said he thought to himself: “This is what I dreamed of as a child.”
Then he tried to compose himself and “get to work,” he said. During the next three quarters – Williams didn’t need to play in the fourth, after the Tar Heels had built a 52-7 lead – he ran for three touchdowns and passed for another.
One of those rushing touchdowns came moments after Jeff Schoettmer – like Williams another fifth-year senior – intercepted a Miami pass and returned it 60 yards to the Hurricanes’ 14. Schoettmer during his return hurdled his way over one prospective tackler, and he weaved his way around others, all the while turning his head, searching for space.
“Fun, and tiring,” Schoettmer said of the return. He said he was “pretty gassed” by the end of it but took pleasure, nonetheless, in some of the moves that made it possible, and in the way he deftly dodged tacklers and escaped trouble.
“I like to think I have pretty good vision,” Schoettmer said, smiling. “Maybe if Elijah (Hood) goes down or any running backs, they can put me back there.”
That wasn’t necessary on Saturday, not with Hood, the sophomore running back, leading UNC with 132 yards rushing and touchdown. Even so, that one sequence – the Schoettmer return, followed immediately by Williams’ 14-yard touchdown run – personified the significance of senior day.
On one end of that sequence a former walk-on, Schoettmer, was ending one of Miami’s few promising drives. And on the other end Williams, who has perhaps transformed himself more than any other UNC player, scored a touchdown that gave the Tar Heels (9-1, 6-0) a 24-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
“He has come so far, as a football player and a man,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said later of Williams.
Fedora, though, could have said something similar about his team as a whole. A year ago at this time, the Tar Heels were trudging toward a 6-7 finish and an appearance in a forgettable bowl game in Detroit.
Now they’ve won nine consecutive games – their longest winning streak in a single season since 1914 – and are seemingly improving every week. In UNC’s past three games, it has won on the road at Pittsburgh in a nationally televised Thursday night game, beaten rival Duke by five touchdowns and, now, defeated once-proud Miami (6-4, 3-3) by 38 points.
The Hurricanes arrived at Kenan Stadium with a chance, albeit slim, to still win the Coastal Division. They left humbled, with pride the only thing left to play for, Miami coach Larry Scott said afterward.
UNC, meanwhile, has everything left to play for: The Coastal Division. The ACC championship. The Tar Heels would win the Coastal with one victory in their final two games, and the only way they won’t win it is if they lose their remaining two games and if Pitt wins its final two games.
By now, after nine consecutive victories, after what UNC has done the past two weeks – the 125 points combined against Duke and Miami is a school record for back-to-back games – it seems almost certain the Tar Heels will be in Charlotte for the ACC championship game.
“They’re doing the things that a team does,” Fedora said of his team. “This is a (dang) good football team.”
Entering Saturday Fedora wanted his team focused on playing Miami and not on the possibility that, had Duke beaten Pitt on Saturday, UNC would have been playing to clinch the division.
But now it’s here: one more victory and UNC will play in the ACC championship game.
“Sunday, I promise you the first thing out of my mouth will be Coastal Division champs,” Fedora said. “Because that’s our goal. And they know that I’m going to say it first in the meeting and that’s where our focus will be.”
The focus on Saturday, though, was on Miami, and on sending out UNC’s senior class with a game it would remember. And memorable it was: UNC ran for a season-high 298 yards and it might have played its most complete, thorough game of the season.
In the days leading into Saturday, the Tar Heels spoke often of “history week” – of their desire to make history by becoming the second UNC team to win seven games at Kenan Stadium. There was more to it than that, too. The senior class wanted to rewrite some of its own history.
It wanted to leave a legacy.
“It feels really cool to see the program turn around and where it’s headed now,” linebacker Shakeel Rashad, one of those seniors, said.
UNC’s turnaround began last January. It continued after a disappointing season-opening loss against South Carolina. Nine victories later, the Tar Heels have won more games than any UNC team since 1997, and the season isn’t close to over. In some ways it feels like it’s just beginning.
After the victory on Saturday, Fedora thanked his seniors, many of whom lingered for a while longer on the field. Then they walked off of it for the last time after a win, with hopes of greater things to come.