Like his teammates collectively, Marquise Williams individually last week in Pittsburgh wiped out whatever bad taste was left from North Carolina’s season-opening loss to South Carolina.
The Tar Heels are back on track, in position to win a Coastal Division title.
Williams is back to even, atoning for his three interceptions against the Gamecocks with a solid all-around performance that would have been memorable for one play alone, when he shook off a Pittsburgh defender clinging to his facemask and lofted a long pass downfield for a Ryan Switzer touchdown.
Over the final four games of the regular season, Williams has a chance to leave a tremendous mark on the quarterback position in Chapel Hill. The South Carolina game, the biggest negative of his season, is essentially forgotten. What he does now, starting against Duke on Saturday, will impact not only Williams’ legacy at North Carolina, but the Tar Heels’ postseason fate and even perhaps the all-ACC voting at the position.
Williams’ college career is nearing its end, and yet he still has everything in front of him. He’s playing with house money now.
He got off to a rocky start, academically suspended for a semester, playing sparingly behind Bryn Renner until Renner got hurt two years ago, and Williams turned out to be an excellent fit for Larry Fedora’s offense, leading the Tar Heels to wins in six of their final seven games.
As a junior, he fought off competition from Mitch Trubisky to win the starting job, and while his best performance of the season was a five-touchdown day in a win over Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels’ biggest win might have been the 45-20 pounding at Duke, where Williams overcame three fumbles by running for two touchdowns and throwing for two more.
While this season started rough for Williams, and Fedora even flirted briefly with Trubisky, Williams has gotten better each week. He could run more if the Tar Heels needed him to run more. They haven’t lately, with Elijah Hood so effective.
So now Duke, one of North Carolina’s biggest wins a season ago, and Williams’ best chance yet to make a statement to all-ACC voters.
There’s no James Conner or Duke Johnson or Jameis Winston in the player-of-the-year race this year, only Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson and Florida State running back Dalvin Cook – and Duke safety Jeremy Cash, if voters are sufficiently open-minded. With Cook battling injury and Cash playing on defense, Watson is the clear leader two-thirds of the way through the season.
Williams still has a chance to change that. While Watson’s numbers at the moment are better, Williams isn’t far behind.
Watson has more passing yards (1936 to 1623) and touchdowns (20 to 11), while Williams has more rushing yards (528 to 386) and rushing and receiving touchdowns (six to four). Watson plays for a better team, but if North Carolina keeps winning Williams could close the statistical gap while on a collision course to go head-to-head with Watson back in Charlotte, where Williams’ season began so dismally.
First, there’s a collision Saturday with Duke’s defense, a strength-on-strength matchup between one of the ACC’s most explosive offenses and one of its hardest-hitting defenses. Williams is surrounded by skilled players like Hood, Quinshad Davis, Ryan Switzer and others, but their quarterback is the fulcrum of the offense.
With a win over Duke, and continued success beyond, Williams has a chance to do what T.J. Yates and Renner before him could not, in large part because of circumstances beyond their control: Get North Carolina to a big-time bowl game.
Williams started slowly, and the South Carolina loss closed doors that are only now reopening. They’re open, though, and it’s up to Williams to lead the Tar Heels through them.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock