"We talked about players having to step up and make plays when adversity strikes and you lose your quarterback," head coach Butch Davis said during his postgame press conference. "The guys around him – the supporting cast – have got to play."
Miami (2-2, 0-1 ACC) jumped out to a 24-14 lead with 9:59 remaining in the fourth quarter on a Robert Marve-to-Aldarius Johnson 4-yard touchdown pass. But North Carolina (3-1, 1-1 ACC) quickly struck back on the ensuing possession, as Sexton connected with Hakeem Nicks (5 catches, 133 yards, 1 TD) down the seam for a 74-yard touchdown bomb on 3rd and 10.
North Carolina's defense rose to occasion, holding the Hurricanes to seven total yards on their next two series, as the Tar Heels were able to twice drive into Miami territory in the closing minutes. And while the first of those possessions ended in a Jay Wooten 53-yard wide-left field goal attempt, Sexton capitalized on the final opportunity, driving the offense 56 yards in seven plays for the winning score.
"I thought he handled the moment very, very well," Davis said. "I think he trusted in the receivers and he trusted the protection."
For the red-shirt junior quarterback that was thrust into the turmoil that surrounded John Bunting's final campaign in 2006, this game was about more than a victory – it was about overcoming past difficulties and proving to the Tar Heel fan base just what kind of player he is.
"I think that through my faith and my struggles that I've learned and I've grown stronger," said Sexton, who completed 11-of-19 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns. "The one thing through it all was that I had a great support staff and my teammates were behind me. They brought me out of this – I didn't do anything special… It feels good right now. It feels good."
Sexton's maturation process revealed itself on the final throw to Foster (2 catches, 27 yards, 1 TD). The play was designed to go to a receiver in the flat, but Miami defended the first two options to perfection. Sexton then moved to his third option – something that he admitted that he may not have done two years ago – and found Foster on the right side of the end zone.
"Brooks made the play," Sexton said. "He slipped earlier, and I told him, ‘I'm coming back to you. I'm coming back to you.' And he answered. He made a great catch. The throw wasn't anything special – he just made a great play on it."
In reality, Sexton's throw was placed in the most opportune location – to the boundary side of his receiver where Miami defensive back DeMarcus Van Dyke had no play on the ball. It was either going to be a touchdown catch, or Wooten was going to trot out for a game-tying field goal attempt.
Miami shot out to a quick 14-0 first-quarter lead after Marve (18-of-27, 135 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) threw touchdown passes to Kayne Farquharson (3 catches, 51 yards, 1 TD) and Graig Cooper (110 yards on 19 rushes, 29 yards on 3 catches, 1 TD) for nine and 11 yards, respectively. After starting quarterback Mike Paulus (1-of-4, 10 yards) was unsuccessful in his first two drives, Sexton engineered a 58-yard scoring drive that resulted in Greg Little's 6-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 14-7.
Matt Bosher added a 34-yard field goal for Miami, while Ryan Houston (5 rushes for 18 yards, 1 TD) pounded his way in from two yards out on the opening drive of the second half to slice the Tar Heels deficit to 17-14.
The Tar Heels allowed Miami to gain 89 yards on its opening possession of the game, but only allowed the Hurricanes to earn 309 yards for the game, including just 104 in the second half. Trimane Goddard's second fourth-quarter interception came in the end zone as time expired, as the senior took the ball away from Farquharson in a tense moment.
North Carolina garnered 299 yards of total offense, and Brandon Tate added 130 all-purpose yards to his nationally-leading totals. The senior wide receiver set the all-time NCAA record for combined kick returns (punts and kickoffs) by surpassing California's Deltha O'Neal 3,455 yards from 1996-99. Tate now has 3,549 career return yards.
North Carolina returns home next Saturday to face Connecticut (4-0) at 7 pm on ESPNU/ESPN2.