“This is absolutely a big win,” head coach John Bunting said. “I've been around a bunch of them. I'm just so happy for the kids and for this staff. I've had a lot of big wins. This one was nice but I am really happy for these kids.”
If you don’t know that UNC has, statistically, one of the poorest defenses in the nation then you have been following some other sport this fall. A quick look at the box score, that shows the Heels relinquishing 415 yards, might seem par for the course. But this was Miami, and this was North Carolina. This was a North Carolina team that set a record for the most yards ever given up by a UNC defense just two weeks ago.
What the heck happened?
What happened was the Tar Heel defense decided to reinvent itself as an aggressive defense. All night long the Tar Heel defense stunted and blitzed, actually managing to confuse Berlin and the Miami offense on many occasions.
Instead of having their linebackers backed well off the line of scrimmage, the Tar Heels were darting linebackers up into the line, showing blitz, sometimes coming, sometimes dropping back into coverage. As the game progressed, the UNC defense became even more aggressive, often going into man-to-man coverage and challenging the vaunted Miami receivers.
Perhaps the most satisfying moment for the Tar Heels’ came with just over seven minutes left in the game. During this season, the lack of respect opposing offenses have had for North Carolina’s defense have made fourth down conversion attempts routine. Miami, on UNC’s 33-yard-line, choose to do what many teams have done and lined up to try and convert a fourth-and-eight. Berlin hit his tight end Greg Olsen for what would have been first-down yardage, but strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh stripped the ball from Olsen and UNC took over on downs.
This night had to be gratifying for several of the upperclassmen who came to North Carolina without the hype of the last two recruiting classes. Players like Jeff Longhany, Doug Justice, Tommy Richardson, Jacoby Watkins, and Tommy Davis were the leaders of this defensive effort – along with transfer Gerald Sensabaugh, who seemed to be everywhere.
North Carolina was down to their third-string tailback, a true freshman, and a fullback sometimes lining up at the tailback spot. The Tar Heels rushed for 279 yards.
Again, what the heck happened?
The first thing that happened was the Tar Heel offensive line dominated -- repeat, dominated -- the Miami defensive line. Taking nothing away from Chad Scott’s remarkable career night (175 yards rushing), the UNC offensive line offered up gaping holes for the senior tailback, and fullback Madison Hedgecock had a stellar night blocking.
Scott and the line may have been the story for the UNC offense, but Darian Durant played a remarkable game Saturday night as well. Durant completed 21-of-29 attempts for 266 yards and two touchdowns, the only blemish being an interception tossed as the first half ended. That interception provided the opportunity for another Tar Heel hero to emerge.
With Miami’s Greg Threat streaking down the sideline for what looked certain to be the tying score, North Carolina wide receiver Jesse Holley chased Threat down from behind as the clock ran out in the first half. In a game with so many UNC heroes and big plays, that may have been the play of the game.
Durant made the extraordinary final UNC drive of 65 yards, which set up the game-winning field goal by Connor Barth, look ordinary. Durant completed all three pass attempts on that drive, and rushed for the final five yards to get the ball well within Barth’s range.
Special Teams and Turnover Margin
The Tar Heels spent most the game trying to kick away from Miami’s Devin Hester. The results were mixed, as sometimes a punt would result in poor yardage, and sometimes UNC gave the ball to Miami on the thirty-five with a kickoff sailing out of bounds. But most importantly Hester returned no kicks for touchdowns on this night.
The game-winning field goal by Connor Barth – ostensibly a routine 42-yarder from the middle of the field, but made with the game on the line – would be sufficient alone to rate an “A+” on special teams, but the Tar Heels did not hurt themselves in this area all evening.
It is remarkable that the Tar Heels would turn the ball over only once, and that turnover cost them little. What is even more remarkable is that the Hurricanes would go down to defeat without turning the ball over once. Turnovers are usually the story of major upsets such as this one, but Miami is deprived of pointing to that stat as the cause of its defeat.
After brushing over the highlights of the heroics on the field Saturday night, it has to be said that this was the most remarkable coaching job of this season, and perhaps in the ACC by any staff this season, by head coach John Bunting and his crew.
The offensive play-calling was excellent, the defensive schemes were aggressive, clock management – particularly on the final drive – was brilliant, and the team was disciplined in their assignments.
The final impact of a victory of this magnitude on a college football program can’t be measured after a few days, or even a few months. It will certainly have an impact on Bunting’s coaching status with the Tar Heels, it will likely have an impact on recruiting, and it has the potential to be a “program turning” event.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Tech Hokies (6-2, 3-1) come to Kenan Football Stadium in a game that kicks off at Noon on Saturday. More likely than not, the Tar Heels will spend this week concentrating on that coming event, rather than the potential impact of Saturday night’s win.
After all, UNC has a lot to play for the remainder of this season.
A winning record, a bowl game, and a solid finish in the ACC all loom as possibilities for this UNC football team. In fact, North Carolina isn’t mathematically eliminated from a share of the ACC title at this point in the season.
A more startling and improbable fact than that would be difficult to imagine.