Larry Fedora walked into his team’s locker room Saturday after North Carolina’s 30-27 overtime victory at Virginia Tech and he didn’t know what to say or exactly how to say it after this, the latest memorable victory in the Tar Heels’ most memorable football season in 18 years.
During the previous three and a half hours, Fedora, the UNC coach, had watched his offense fail, repeatedly, like it hadn’t all season. He watched the Tar Heels snap out of it, finally, to take a two-touchdown lead midway through the fourth quarter. He had watched that lead disappear in the final minutes of regulation.
He had watched his quarterback, Marquise Williams, a fifth-year senior, play through one of his worst games, one stained by three lost fumbles. And then Fedora had watched Williams come back and throw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Quinshad Davis on the final play of the game.
“Marquise never was shaken,” Fedora said later. “I can’t say the same for me.”
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UNC’s sideline emptied then, after the game-winning touchdown pass. The Tar Heels rushed onto the field, a jumping, jubilant mass of white jerseys and helmets, bobbing about while they celebrated a victory unlike any in school history. With this one, UNC won the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Afterward, an ACC official brought in the Coastal Division trophy. And Fedora stood in front his team, searching for words, before he said, “Man, I don’t know what to say.”
That’s how Shakeel Rashad, the senior linebacker, remembered it, anyway. And then after a couple of moments of silence, Rashad said, someone spoke up.
“Someone, I don’t know, screamed out, ‘We got grit,’ ” Rashad said.
The Tar Heels’ best season in nearly two decades is coming to define by that intangible: Grit. Guts. Fortitude. Moxie. Whatever the word for it, No. 12 UNC (10-1, 7-0 ACC) has it.
The Tar Heels proved it with the way they responded from a disappointing season-opening loss at South Carolina. And during a victory at Georgia Tech in the biggest come-from-behind win in school history. And in a win at Pittsburgh on a Thursday night in late October.
And, now, at Virginia Tech, where the Hokies (5-6, 3-4) wanted so desperately to win in coach Frank Beamer’s last home game. They recognized Beamer before the game and recognized him afterward, too, after the Tar Heels had spoiled the party.
“We’re a very mentally tough, mature football team right now at this point in the year,” said Elijah Hood, the sophomore running back. “We know some things are going to happen in football games. We know it’s going to be chaotic and things aren’t always going to go our way.”
Like, for instance, when UNC built a 24-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter after the second of Hood’s touchdown runs. Finally, after slogging its way through its most sluggish offensive performance of the season, it looked then like the Tar Heels were pulling away – that they’d win without drama.
But Virginia Tech scored with a little less than four minutes to play when it converted a fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line. And then, not long after, Williams fumbled for the third time and the Hokies recovered, again.
Now there was tension. Suspense. The crowd, energized throughout, roared. In years past, and maybe even at the start of the season, Williams might have sulked after his third turnover. This time he returned to his sideline, his teammates said, with his head high and his confidence intact.
After his final turnover Williams kept saying, “I’m good, I’m good.”
The Hokies capitalized on it, though, and tied the game at 24 on Michael Brewer’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Ford with 67 seconds to play. The Lane Stadium stands shook.
On the UNC sideline, the Tar Heels attempted to maintain their composure. They knew what they were getting into in Blacksburg Saturday, they knew it was, as Fedora said, “a perfect storm” of circumstance.
“Everything was going against us,” Fedora said. “I mean they had the tribute to coach and they need to get bowl eligible and their seniors last day in the stadium and the black unis and whatever you want to call it – it was all going against us.”
Until, that is, the coin flip at the start of overtime. UNC won it, started out on defense and forced Virginia Tech to settle for a field goal. Then, after his three fumbles and after a season-high eight UNC drives ended in punts, it was Williams’ turn.
He found Ryan Switzer over the middle on UNC’s first play of overtime, and Switzer broke free for an 18-yard gain that set up a first-and-goal. Hood ran for four yards, then UNC committed a false start penalty – one of its seven. Williams then ran for a short gain to set up third-and-goal at the 5.
The Tar Heels called a timeout. They had an array of options. They could have played it safe and given it to Hood, who ran for 115 yards. They could have called a designed run for Williams, who ran for 74 yards and a touchdown.
“They (were) like, ‘Run this play, run that play,’ ” Davis, the UNC receiver, said later, recalling the huddle on the sideline. Finally there was a decision.
“Coach said, ‘We’re throwing it to 14,’ ” said Davis, who wears that number. “And I was like, ‘Good deal, coach. I’ve been telling you that – throw it to me.’ And I got lined up one-one-one, like they’ve been doing all day, and I beat him on the route.”
The throw was right where it needed to be – the only place it could have been for Davis to make the play. He caught it. The officials raised his hands. The celebration began.
Somewhere the conference official in charge of the Coastal Division trophy found it and prepared to deliver it to the UNC locker room. Fedora, meanwhile, met Beamer at midfield, and “told him it was an honor to be on the field with him today,” he said.
The past two weeks, Fedora had led his team to record-setting performances in victories against Duke and Miami. He figured the points would be more difficult to come by on Saturday. He figured his team would have to be closer to perfect – that it would at least have to be proficient at the basics.
Yet the Tar Heels weren’t. They committed nine penalties. They made uncharacteristic mistakes. Fedora himself called a strange timeout on UNC’s final possession that he described as “bad coaching.”
“But we found a way to win,” Fedora said.
Eventually he made his way into his team’s locker room and searched for the words he couldn’t find until one of his players reminded him of the grit, the trait that has defined UNC’s success and one that led the Tar Heels to one more memorable victory.