Before Saturday, North Carolina had won a game after trailing by three touchdowns, and it had won games by more than three touchdowns. The Tar Heels had won on the road in a nationally televised Thursday night game and won in record-setting fashion against a rival.
In this season of winning, though, UNC had never won quite like it won Saturday at Virginia Tech – in overtime, after surrendering a two-touchdown lead in the final minutes in frenzied Lane Stadium, where they were celebrating Frank Beamer’s final home game on the Hokies’ sideline.
UNC had never won amid an overall sluggish offensive performance – UNC’s eight punts were a season-high – and amid late defensive lapses. The Tar Heels had yet to be tested, too, by an overtime game.
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“We’ve won football games in many different ways,” Elijah Hood, the sophomore running back, said after UNC’s 30-27 overtime victory on Saturday. “Blowouts, come from behind victories. Overtime win – now we can add that to the list. We won a close one at Pitt.
“We’re running out of ways to win football games.”
That’s what good teams do, though – they create ways to win instead of finding ways to lose. The Tar Heels did that plenty last season and at other points in coach Larry Fedora’s tenure. They even began this season that way, with a defeat against South Carolina in which UNC committed three turnovers.
Since then, UNC has won 10 consecutive games. The victory on Saturday equals UNC’s longest winning streak in a single season, tying the 10-game winning streak of 1914, which included victories against the likes of Virginia Medical and Riverside Academy.
And more important, with the victory on Saturday UNC clinched the ACC’s Coastal Division and secured its place against Clemson in the Dec. 5 conference championship game. Winning the Coastal had been the Tar Heels’ primary goal since the end of last season.
“And they’ve done that,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said Saturday. “And then we expect that to turn into bigger things. They reached their goal, and I’m proud of them.”
UNC reached its goal as much because of intangibles as anything that can be seen. Fedora during the past two months has often spoken of his team’s grit and character, traits that began to emerge, publicly, in early October when UNC came back from 21 points down in a victory at Georgia Tech.
Fedora, though, believed his team had the right mental makeup from the start. And the Tar Heels proved it again on Saturday when things began to go bad late in regulation.
After UNC built a 24-10 lead with two fourth-quarter Hood touchdown runs, the Hokies cut their deficit in half with a touchdown with less than four minutes to play. Moments later came a UNC turnover – Marquise Williams’ third lost fumble – that led to Virginia Tech scoring the tying touchdown with a little more than a minute to play.
Williams didn’t sulk. He didn’t lose his confidence. And his opportunity for redemption came after the Tar Heels’ defense held Virginia Tech to a field goal on the first possession of overtime.
UNC quickly moved inside the Hokies’ 10-yard line on Williams’ 18-yard pass to Ryan Switzer. A couple of plays later came the defining moment – a 3rd-and-goal from the 5, and an opportunity for UNC to win the game with a touchdown.
“I couldn’t let the guys down again,” Williams said. “And I had to find a way. (I) put the ball in the air so he could make the catch. I knew he was going to make the catch, man.”
Quinshad Davis, the senior receiver, made the catch. And UNC found a way.
That was the theme of this, the Tar Heels’ 10th consecutive victory and one that completed the realization of their goal to win the Coastal. For long stretches on Saturday UNC’s offense sputtered.
The defense played well overall, but still allowed those two touchdowns late in regulation. And Fedora said he felt like “everything” was working against UNC: the emotion and celebration of Beamer’s final home game, Virginia Tech’s senior day.
Yet just when it seemed like the Tar Heels had given away the victory by relinquishing that two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, UNC stole it back in overtime.
It left with a win unlike any other during its long winning streak, and it left, too, with the ACC Coastal Division championship trophy.