The Tar Heels came into Dolphin Stadium as an underdog, having lost their starting quarterback just a week ago. They left as victors, their first in the state of Florida since Jan. 1, 1998, and a Gator Bowl win over Virginia Tech, and with new life at quarterback in the person of Cameron Sexton.
SEXTON'S REDEMPTION TOUR
Cameron Sexton, who had not thrown a pass since the James Madison game of 2007, came in during the second quarter and led the Tar Heels to their only points of the first half. Sexton only threw two passes on that scoring drive, an 18-yard pass to Pianalto, and a 14-yard strike to Hakeem Nicks, but looked confident and poised, and very quick with his feet.
That good start by Sexton carried over to the second half, when he led the Heels on a critical five-minute, 22-second scoring drive to bring the Heels within three points, 17-14. He would eventually lead the Tar Heels to their first comeback win after trailing in the third quarter since 2004, sealing the deal with an NFL-like toss to Brooks Foster, 28-24.
Sexton was definitely the story of the day. After struggling along for the last couple of seasons, he emerged today looking like a different quarterback. How did he make this transition?
"I really think, unfortunately, it came from going through the "suck", per se, of the last couple of years," Sexton said. "I didn't play well, I wasn't ready to play and I thought I was. When you get beat down so much and play so poorly, sooner or later you have to play better, There's no where else for you to go but up. Like I said, these coaches came in here and taught me how to play football again, and that's kind of where I am."
Head coach Butch Davis heaped praise on the junior's performance, saying, "We didn't know exactly how it would play out during the course of the game, if one of them would get hot, one of them would be playing well, that we would maybe ride that particular quarterback for a period of time and Cam came in and on his very first drive, drove the team down, scored a touchdown – got another opportunity and kept moving the ball and having some success so we just stayed with him. It had no reflection whatsoever on Mike, it's just that Cam did an excellent job."
Sexton would finish the game with 11 completions on 19 attempts, 242 yards, and two touchdowns, including a 74-yard strike to Hakeem Nicks.
MIAMI STARTS STRONG
Early on the Hurricanes gashed the North Carolina run defense, or more specifically, Graig Cooper did, ripping off runs of 20 and 31 yards on Miami's first scoring drive. Apparently as the result of an in-game adjustment, the Tar Heels did a better job on Cooper until a 14-yard gain in the fourth quarter.
"We struggled a little bit with the running game – we knew that we would, we knew that Craig Cooper was a talented kid, we'd watched him light everybody else up, and he concerned us," Davis said. "Fortunately, we did a much better job fitting the runs in late in the second quarter and through the second half than we did early because early it was just hold your breath every time he touched the ball."
TATE BREAKS NCAA RETURN RECORD
Brandon Tate set the all-time NCAA record today for combined kick and punt returns. He now has 3,549 kick return yards, added 130 all-purpose yards, and completed his first career pass, a 12-yarder to Hakeem Nicks. Word is he will start washing the team's uniforms and driving the bus next week. Just kidding.
WHEN IT IS SHORT, HOUSTON COMES UP BIG
Ryan Houston got the call today on short yardage, and delivered. Houston moved the chains on four third-and-short plays, converting them all. Houston indicated that this was by design, and that it is a role he relishes.
"They know I am a big physical running back, so they are saying, basically, short yardage, goal-line, they know I can get a yard or two," Houston said. "Really it is a team thing, we're just trying to put together the best team, rather than individuals.
"I just feel the team can come to me on third-and-one, because I am not going to disappoint them. My vision is good enough that if I can see a little crease, even if there is nothing there, I am going to get a yard or two, guaranteed."
TIME OF POSSESSION KEY IN FIRST HALF
The Hurricanes held nearly a ten-minute time-of-possession edge over the Tar Heels in the first half, but the Tar Heels did a good job of rotating players on the defensive line. Aleric Mullins and Tydreke Powell were in early on in the game and rotated with Cam Thomas and Marvin Austin, while Quinton Coples and Michael McAdoo rotated in at defensive end. That rotation paid dividends, as by mid-way of the third quarter, it was the Miami defense that was placing its hands on its hips.
The UNC defense was able to come up with a crucial stop to give the ball back to the offense prior to the winning touchdown. The defensive line rotation clearly played a role in that.
"Coming into Miami, you know the weather, you have to stay fresh," Aleric Mullins said of the defensive line rotation. "If you stay fresh, that gives you a chance get off the line and run to the ball, especially out there the last seconds."
MIAMI'S WIDE RECEIVERS
Miami used eight wide receivers in his game -- Sam Shields, Aldarius Johnson, Travis Benjamin, Richard Gordon, Kayne Farquharson, Therron Collier, Khalil Jones, and LaRon Byrd -- and for good reason, none of them are very impressive, which is a generous statement. There were several drops, and none of them had a catch-and-run that exceeded 11 yards in the first half. Both Robert Marve and Jacory Harris are better than their receivers make them look.
SPECIAL TEAM GAFFES
There were several special teams miscues. A mishandled snap on a punt by Terrence Brown led to a first-and-ten for Miami on UNC's own eleven-yard line, and ultimately Miami's second touchdown. A running-into-the-kicker penalty after the Tar Heels forced a punt returned possession to the Hurricanes.
After the Tar Heels closed to within three points, 17-14, a poor kick and an illegal procedure on the ensuing kickoff gave Miami terrific field position. It is easy to talk about mistakes and point to them after a loss, but in this game, the Tar Heels overcame some adversity to come out with the win.
Senior Trimane Goddard had a career day against the Hurricanes. The senior not only intercepted two passes, including the one that secured the win, he also led the Tar Heels in tackles with eight stops.
"Trimane Goddard played spectacular today, he's just got a really, really, good nose for the football, he got excellent instincts, he and Deunta, are just two really good guys to have back there at safety," Davis said.
It was a big, and unexpected, ACC road win for the Tar Heels, but they will get no break – they face the undefeated Connecticut Huskies in Kenan Stadium next weekend.