“Fortunately, we didn’t get knocked out in the first quarter,” head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his Sunday evening teleconference.
Consider this laundry list of seemingly disastrous results for the Tar Heels in the first 15 minutes of play. The Hurricanes gained 127 yards on 19 plays, averaging 6.7 yards per play. Those totals include 86 rushing yards on 11 attempts for a 7.8 yards per carry average.
Compare those numbers with North Carolina’s first quarter results – 24 yards on 13 plays, averaging 1.85 yards per play. The Tar Heels rushed the ball eight times, losing four yards as a result. Shaun Draughn busted one open down the right sideline for 34 yards, only to be negated by a holding penalty on left guard Bryon Bishop.
As equally unimpressive as those statistics are for both the offensive and defensive units, UNC’s special teams made it clear that they didn’t want to be left out of the conversation. Melvin Williams and Ryan Taylor were blown up – earning distinction on ESPN’s SportsCenter – on T. Benjamin’s 37-yard punt return that set up a Miami field goal attempt.
The Hurricanes scored their second touchdown of the quarter three plays after Terrence Brown fumbled a punt snap that was left of target, giving Miami the ball on UNC’s 11-yard line.
On the positive side of things, the Tar Heels did recover both of their fumbles in the opening stanza.
So with miscues across the board in all three phases to begin the contest, how exactly was North Carolina able to pull out an improbable victory?
“We talk about scenarios all of the time – about dealing with adversity, about dealing with crowd noise, about dealing with going on the road,” Davis said. “And we talk about knowing that in the first quarter, you’re probably going to get the other team’s best shot. It’s like a heavyweight prize fight. Sometimes if you can withstand the first round or two’s barrage that you get from the other fighter, and you can kind of stay in there, then things settle down… As the fight goes along, it becomes about execution.”
Things quickly changed for the Tar Heels, offensively and defensively. Six of Miami’s final seven drives ended with either a punt or an interception, and four of those possessions gained less than 21 yards.
Miami took the game’s opening kickoff and drove 89 yards in eight plays for an early touchdown, but the Hurricanes only gained 104 yards of offense in the entire second half, 49 of which occurred on their last possession when North Carolina was set up in its prevent defense.
“I thought we did some things decent at times in the second, third and fourth quarters defensively to kind of get a grip on some of the things that they had success in in the first half,” Davis said.
While Cameron Sexton’s heroics have been the focal point of the 28-24 come-from-behind victory – as it should be – UNC’s ground game provided the red-shirt junior with enough balance to give him some valuable time in the pocket.
The statistics are rather unappealing – 35 yards on 33 carries. But 40 yards in losses due to sacks and the two fumbles hide an otherwise solid showing from the running back corps that gained 79 yards on 26 rushes for a 3.04 yards per carry average.
“[The losses] negated the success that we felt like we had running the football,” Davis said. “Ryan Houston gave us a little bit of a shot, and certainly Shaun Draughn had a great run that unfortunately was called back and Greg Little had some good runs, so we felt like we made some strides and progress. Miami, like Virginia Tech, is a difficult team to run on… When you run for anything, you pretty much have to earn it.”
One important piece of information that helps illustrate why the Tar Heels were able to fight back in South Florida was winning the turnover battle, 2-0.
“Not turning the ball over and getting two turnovers was certainly the most important significant statistic that came out of the ball game,” Davis said.
It’s also worth noting that North Carolina hadn't won a contest in which it trailed entering the fourth quarter since Oct. 9, 2004, when N.C. State led 16-13 with 15 minutes remaining before the Tar Heels rallied for a 30-24 victory. Miami led 17-14 after three quarters on Saturday.
While the Virginia Tech loss was about North Carolina losing T.J. Yates and it’s composure, this Miami victory was about the Tar Heels keeping their composure down 14 points, as well as regaining a quarterback thought lost by many in the fan base.