Thus far into the season, the win Saturday over Boston College (6-3, 3-3) makes a strong case for being the biggest win of the season.
"It was a whole effort, it was a complete game played in all phases," head coach John Bunting said following the game. For that reason, and several others, the win over Boston College takes on special significance for this UNC football team.
Winning on the road over your in-state rival (N.C. State) is big. Winning over your ranked out-of-state rival (Virginia) is arguably bigger. Beating an opponent ranked in the Top 20 nationally and salvaging hopes for a winning season and a bowl berth qualifies as the biggest.
The North Carolina offense is unlikely to show up on ESPN's Top Plays. The Tar Heels failed to break 100 yards rushing and managed only 310 yards of total offense – barely over their average of 306 yards per game. They also failed to score an offensive touchdown.
But in many ways it was a remarkable offensive performance, and especially in one particular way – the Tar Heels converted third downs. "They seemed to find a way to make third-down conversions when they needed them," Boston College head coach Tom O'Brien said. "I mean, they were nine of 18, 50 percent - that's a high percentage."
Several factors were critical to the Tar Heels' ability to convert third downs. Though the running game did not put up gaudy numbers, tailbacks Ronnie McGill and Barrington Edwards, behind a hard-working offensive line, earned tough yards against the No. 7 rushing defense in the nation, giving UNC the opportunity to face third-and-short situations. Second, the Tar Heels committed fewer offensive penalties in this game than in previous games, helping to avoid second-and-long and third-and-long situations. Finally, when the Tar Heels did need long yardage for a first down, wide receiver Jesse Holley often came up with big catches to move the chains. It would be remiss not to mention that this effort was led by Matt Baker, who turned in a solid performance at quarterback.
McGill and Edwards, behind a hard-working offensive line, earned tough yards against the No. 7 rushing defense in the nation.
The Carolina offense deserved to be in a celebratory mood following the game, but also recognized that it was far from a dominant effort, particularly in the red zone. The Tar Heels had to settle for short field goals after two long first half drives. Had they converted those drives with touchdowns, Justin Phillips would not have needed to corral a Boston College on-side kick at the end of the game to seal the win.
"We get into the red zone two or three times, we need seven points. Three got the job done today, but we are going to get the job done next week," Holley said.
Though Boston College's offense has seemed to fly a bit under the radar in the ACC, the Eagles have been efficient and productive this year. Prior to Saturday's game, they were the third-best offense in the ACC, averaging 393 yards per game.
The Tar Heels got a huge assist from the offense. With nearly a ten-minute bulge in time-of-possession, the result of converting those third downs, the offense kept the defense fresh on an unusually warm November day. The defense held up their end of the bargain and more, holding the Eagles to 337 yards of total offense, and 100 yards rushing.
Perhaps the biggest play of the day came at the end of the third quarter when senior defensive end Tommy Davis sacked Boston College's Quinton Porter at the 31-yard line, a loss of 12 yards that pushed the Eagles away from chip-shot field goal range. Boston College then committed a false-start penalty on the next play, pushing them five yards further back. Kyndraus Guy hurried Quinton Porter's next pass to L.V. Whitworth, that fell incomplete, and the Eagles were forced to punt.
The Tar Heel defense did not give up a big play until the very end of the fourth quarter when late QB replacement Matt Ryan hit wide receiver Tony Gonzalez for a 38-yard pass. Boston College's longest plays other than that 38-yard strike came in the first half – a 20-yard pass in their first drive and a 17-yard run by Andre Callendar on their next drive. Just as they did in their other two-point win over a ranked opponent, Virginia, the Tar Heel defense limited the opposing offense's big plays.
Linebacker Larry Edwards has developed into an unsung, steady, and productive defender for the Tar Heels. Tommy Davis turned in a great effort with two sacks, but Edwards turned in another double-digit tackle performance, with ten tackles and eight solo stops. Edwards is learning to play within the defensive scheme, and that effort is paying dividends.
One other defensive player deserves mention: Bryan Bethea.
One other defensive player deserves mention: Bryan Bethea. Bethea has seen limited action this season at cornerback, but defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders must have seen something he liked from Bethea last week in practice. Bethea turned in a solid performance, breaking up a pass and notching seven tackles.
The Tar Heels, at least in my selective memory, have rarely played a better game from a special teams perspective. The Wallace Wright kickoff return for a touchdown, the punting of David Woolridge, the three-field goals by Connor Barth – it was a solid, if not spectacular, performance by the special teams – and in fact accounted for all the Tar Heel scores on Saturday.
The field goals by Barth were critical, and perhaps not just for the outcome of this game. Barth was just 3-of-11 in field goal attempts coming into this game, and his confidence had to be sagging. The two short field goals, 20 and 22 yards, perhaps shored up that confidence and it was a very good sign for the Tar Heels when he nailed a 44-yard attempt that proved to be the margin of victory.
Going into the season it was difficult to envision how the Tar Heels would be able to duplicate last season's six wins and bowl appearance. Facing one of the toughest schedules in the nation while replacing record-setting quarterback Darian Durant made the Tar Heels' chances of a winning season seem remote.
They are not there yet, but they are closer to achieving that goal than all but a few imagined they would be at this point of the season. Next week's home game versus Maryland is likely the final serious hurdle to a winning season. The Tar Heels have never beaten Maryland under coach Ralph Friedgen.
But if they do, it could be the biggest win of the year.