It starts to make sense now, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, with the benefit of knowing what would happen over the next 12 weeks. At the time, it was hard to understand why Marquise Williams was so calm.
It was late at night, in a dim, noisy concrete hallway outside the North Carolina locker room at Bank of America Stadium, after as disheartening a loss to begin a season as you could ever imagine. Williams stood there, without once flinching, and took the blame for that 17-13 loss to South Carolina that was hard to believe then and seems utterly inexplicable now.
“They were just stupid mistakes I made,” Williams said that evening of his three interceptions, two of them in the end zone.
Stoic, resolved and forthright, the North Carolina quarterback appeared far from despondent, although he admits now he was “devastated.” The Charlotte native had been looking forward to playing in his hometown, looking forward to helping steer a new course for North Carolina football, perhaps too much that night, forcing the ball into the end zone instead of letting the game come to him.
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But even in that disappointment, Williams liked what he saw from North Carolina’s reworked defense. He and his teammates knew that losing to South Carolina, while disappointing and disheartening, would not stop them from winning the Coastal Division or from winning the mythical “state title.”
If I just protect the football and give us a chance to win football games, we’ll win a lot of football games.
UNC quarterback Marquise Williams
(It would potentially interfere with North Carolina’s chances of participating in the College Football Playoff, but on that Thursday night in September, that wasn’t on anyone’s minds yet.)
“On the positive side, our defense looked good,” Williams said Monday. “We had a great team. If I just protect the football and give us a chance to win football games, we’ll win a lot of football games. I knew, just cut down on the turnovers, have fun playing the game, have fun in your last time in a Tar Heels uniform this year.”
So even as it felt like the end of something, a litmus test for the rest of the season that the Tar Heels failed, the Tar Heels were able to easily console themselves with how different this game had felt from games a year ago, something they were particularly attuned to notice after the toxic chemistry that infected the team in 2014.
And there were tangible areas of improvement that helped the mood veer from disappointment to optimism as well: the defense, how good Elijah Hood looked in a surprisingly limited role, Nick Weiler’s kicking, how close the Tar Heels came to winning despite the three interceptions.
Above it all, there was the awareness that if all went according to plan, the Tar Heels would be back on this same field. From the outside, that seemed slightly unrealistic after a loss to what turned out to be a South Carolina team so bad Steve Spurrier walked away in the middle of the season, but that’s how Williams consoled himself for his performance.
“After that game, I told myself, ‘I’ll be back here this year. I’ll come back and have a better game than I did the first time,’ ” Williams said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself in that first game, and I just needed to go out there and have fun and take care of the football and execute.”
Eleven wins later, against a different team from South Carolina, against undefeated, top-ranked Clemson, Williams will get a second chance. It’s not a stretch to say his entire season has been building toward this moment, at least since those dark moments in that dim cacophonous concrete hallway when Williams shouldered the burden for a loss and was already looking ahead to the day when he might be back to try again.