Larry Fedora didn’t feel like eating. After what was perhaps the most important victory of his head coaching tenure at North Carolina, someone tried handing Fedora a boxed meal after the Tar Heels’ 37-35 victory against Florida State on Saturday.
“I’m not hungry,” Fedora said with a smile and an expression that indicated his stomach might have still been in knots after what he’d witnessed about 45 minutes earlier. Fedora said he didn’t want to watch. It was out of his hands, whether Nick Weiler would make a 54-yard field goal in the final seconds.
Fedora didn’t bother Weiler with any words. In fact, Fedora didn’t want to be anywhere close to Weiler. And when the kick went up, and went through the uprights, Fedora simply walked onto the field, two police officers by his side offering an escort, his hands raised high.
“This team, again, continues to show how much grit they have,” he said later. “They care tremendously for each other. They play for something greater than themselves.”
He’d said similar things after similar victories: after UNC’s dramatic comeback win against Pittsburgh one week earlier, and after the Tar Heels won the ACC’s Coastal Division with an overtime victory at Virginia Tech last year and after another memorable comeback at Georgia Tech earlier last season.
And so he talked again about grit and intangibles, about belief. This, though, was different because the circumstances were different: a make-it-or-lose field-goal attempt in the final seconds and then, when Weiler came through, the kind of victory that had been so elusive.
Florida State entered Saturday ranked No. 12 in The Associated Press top 25 poll. UNC entered Saturday without having beaten a top-12 team since 2009, when it defeated No. 12 Miami.
So many times the Tar Heels had failed to win against the kind of competition they faced on Saturday. So many times they’d approached games like these with hopes of a breakthrough victory, only to retreat with a humbling defeat.
It was that way against Georgia in the Georgia Dome at the start of the season. And against Baylor in a bowl game at the end of last season. And, before that, against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
UNC won 11 games a season ago. Its best win, according to the rankings, came against No. 23 Pitt. Even after winning the Coastal and pushing Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, UNC encountered questions about its legitimacy. Who had the Tar Heels really beaten, after all?
After winning at Florida State on Saturday, it’s a question that can’t apply to these Tar Heels.
“You go on the road and beat the No. 12 team in the country, and I think, what, they had a 22-game home win streak,” Fedora said. “Is that right? I mean, that’s pretty dang good. That’s pretty dang good. So I would say that so far the 2016 team has done some good things.”
The victory against Pitt the week before was one thing. UNC on that Saturday trailed by 13 points midway through the fourth quarter before Mitch Trubisky, the junior quarterback, engineered one of the best comebacks in school history.
And then came an even more dramatic finish at Florida State. The Seminoles hadn’t lost at Doak Campbell Stadium since 2012. They hadn’t lost there against an ACC team since 2011. And when Weiler lined up in the final seconds, the odds seemed high that the streak would continue.
After all, Weiler had never made a field goal longer than 49 yards. He’d never made a kick like this – with the fate of a game in the balance – ever.
And yet, Fedora said calmly afterward, “He was due. He was due.”
Consider the rarity of what Weiler accomplished when he made that 54-yard field goal:
▪ It was, according to ESPN, the longest go-ahead fourth-quarter field goal against a ranked team in at least 10 years.
▪ It was tied for the second-longest field goal in school history, behind Dan Orner’s 55-yard field goal at Syracuse in 2002.
▪ And it gave UNC its first road victory against a top-12 team since it beat No. 9 Syracuse in 1996.
These kind of moments haven’t happened often for the Tar Heels, if they happen often for anybody. These kind of victories have been equally rare.
Before Saturday UNC hadn’t won a game like this in 20 years. And before that win at Syracuse in 1996, UNC hadn’t beaten a top-12 team on the road since 1982, at Texas.
Thirty-five years. Three road victories against a team as highly ranked as Florida State on Saturday.
“For this football team it’s really big,” Fedora said. “Because they felt like we didn’t play well enough to get it done in the first game (against Georgia), and they were really disappointed.
“And all they’ve done is just battled and battled and battled.”
Saturday had the feel of a turning-point moment for Fedora and his players. UNC used that win as a catalyst during its first 11-win season since 1997. The victory at Florida State on Saturday already has brought rewards.
The Tar Heels reentered the top 25 on Sunday at No. 17. They play against No. 25 Virginia Tech on Saturday at Kenan Stadium. It will be the first game between top-25 teams at Kenan since 2008. Before that one, a UNC victory against Georgia Tech, it had been since the Florida State game in 1997.
After the kick on Saturday, Weiler said he “blacked out.” He didn’t exactly recall sprinting down the field, doing the tomahawk chop, and he didn’t know how much spare room he had might have had on that field-goal attempt.
“Somebody told me it had some good room for longer distance,” he said. “It was news to me, I don’t know.”
What he knew, what the Tar Heels knew, is that they’d accomplished something few UNC teams before them had. Now comes the time to build on the moment.
“It’s huge,” said Ryan Switzer, the senior receiver. “The grit that this team has, the resolve, the resiliency. And we just refuse to lose.”