The quarterback is different, if just as productive, and there are many new faces on a defense that still can’t stop the run, but North Carolina’s sense of belief hasn’t changed a bit from last season. The Tar Heels quite clearly believe that they are never out of any game. You can’t fake that. And they have proven just how strong that belief is over the past two weeks with a pair of furious comebacks.
If 14 points in the final seven minutes – including four fourth-down conversions – to erase a late 13-point home deficit against Pittsburgh wasn’t enough, the Tar Heels gave up a Florida State touchdown with 23 seconds to go on Saturday, only to win on Nick Weiler’s 54-yard field goal as time expired.
It’s no coincidence that the same teams seem to do this kind of thing over and over again. The Tar Heels did it last season against Georgia Tech – down 21-0 early in a 38-31 win – and Virginia Tech – answering an overtime field goal with a game-winning touchdown after blowing a 14-point late lead. And the confidence that their offense can score points at any time dates back to Larry Fedora’s arrival on campus, although it took a few seasons for that mentality to really take hold.
At this point, you consider a lead over North Carolina secure at your peril. Should Virginia Tech end up in that position Saturday, look out.
North Carolina isn’t alone in that respect, although its penchant for last-second comebacks is certainly unique. Duke has some talent and experience issues this season, as evidenced by home losses to Wake Forest and Virginia – teams the Blue Devils had gone 7-1 against over the previous four years – but when the Blue Devils were down a touchdown late to Notre Dame, they never flinched.
That’s a product of four straight seasons in a bowl and the expectations that come with that. Duke should keep the bowl streak alive despite the two early losses – because of the program’s academic record, the Blue Devils will be first in line among 5-7 teams to fill any empty bowl spots – but the Notre Dame win was an example of how that kind of collective experience pays dividends.
The Tar Heels have been building their score-at-any-time mentality for four-plus seasons now. While the players deserve the majority of the credit, there’s no question Fedora has helped create the right environment and atmosphere for them. Some of the coach’s Red Bull-fueled antics can seem a little daffy at times, but that personality and his offense put the Tar Heels in a mood to keep attacking late.
And even if he channeled his inner Roy Williams and failed to use a time out that might have given the Tar Heels one more play Saturday, the Tar Heels still successfully drove to within Weiler’s range, with absolutely no margin for error.
This probably won’t go down in the books as a great Florida State team, but that should take away nothing from beating a ranked FSU team in Tallahassee. (The same is true of Duke’s win at Notre Dame, which is an underdog at N.C. State on Saturday.) Regardless of circumstances, it’s a terribly difficult place to play – the Seminoles had won 16 straight ACC games at home – and unquestionably the biggest win of Fedora’s time at North Carolina.
Coupled with the comeback to beat Pittsburgh, it suggests a foundation of real belief within the North Carolina locker room, something that cannot be coached but must be earned by the players themselves.
Getting to that point took more than five weeks. It was the apex of a long process that began with Fedora’s arrival and gathered enough momentum last season to barrel through unrestrained to this September.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock