The Tar Heels became bowl eligible in a fashion emblematic of their season, defeating Old Dominion 80-20 at Kenan Stadium.
UNC (6-5) extended its winning streak to five games, its longest since 2001, after opening the season with a 1-5 record.
“It was a long road,” said senior defensive end Kareem Martin, who had two sacks and a fumble recovery. “When we started off 1-5, it could have been really easy for us to pack it in for next year, whether it be moving on after UNC or just getting ready for the next season. But nobody did that. We all rallied around each other knowing that we could still get to a bowl game.
“That was the biggest thing. I think everybody started to believe in each other, and once we did that, we’re here now.”
After being ineligible to compete in the postseason a year ago, the Tar Heels are in position to play in a bowl game for the fifth time in six seasons.
“I have a sense of pride in these players and what they are accomplishing,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “That’s the reward is seeing them with smiles on their faces, seeing them that when things weren’t good, they kept believing and kept doing the things that we were asking them to do. That’s the reward that I get. Now they’re reaping those rewards.
“Good things are happening for them, and they’re finding ways to make plays, and their confidence is growing.”
The game earned the Tar Heels a chance to extend their season, but it also featured plenty of statistical milestones:
· UNC set school records for points, touchdowns (11) and total offense (721 yards);
· UNC set an ACC record by averaging 10.6 yards per play;
· UNC tied a school record for points in a quarter with 35 in the second, then followed up with 31 points in the third;
· Quarterback Marquise Williams set a school record for total offense (469 yards) and tied the school mark for touchdown passes (five);
· Freshman T.J. Logan rushed for 137 yards and three touchdowns in addition to returning a kickoff 99 yards for a score;
· Freshman Ryan Switzer had five receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns in addition to tying an NCAA record with a punt return for a touchdown in his third consecutive game;
· The game concluded with a 10-minute fourth quarter, as requested by Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder and agreed upon by Fedora.
The contest wasn’t always the foregone conclusion that such a lopsided final score implies. The Tar Heels trailed 10-7 nearly 10 minutes into the game against an opponent that treated the game like its postseason.
Old Dominion, which is making the transition from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision, wasn’t eligible for an FCS playoff berth or an FBS bowl appearance this season. The Monarchs (8-4) knew Saturday would be their final game of the season, and they played that way.
The Monarchs used an onside kick (which they recovered) in the first quarter, quick-kicked with their quarterback in punting situations and went for it on fourth and 1 from their own 18-yard line late in the second quarter.
The Tar Heels withstood all of it, just as they overcame their slow start to the season. All that remains of the regular season is a matchup with Duke that is much more interesting than it seemed six weeks ago.
“If you look at our team, we’ve gotten a little better each week,” Fedora said. “We’re playing our best football at this time of the year, so it’s exciting.
“As the head coach, you watch how the team has progressed and how these young guys have progressed and how this team has grown closer together. They’re having fun playing together. That’s really what it’s all about.”