Hometown Nicks Comes up Big
He truly was spectacular. His stat line tells only half the tale – eight catches, 217 yards, and three touchdowns. Each catch was memorable, particularly a catch worthy of a magician’s sleight-of-hand - a behind-the-back catch that sparked amazed reactions even on press row.
“You can’t say enough about Hakeem Nicks and the performance he had,” head coach Butch Davis said. “Just an unbelievably phenomenal performance -- in excess of 200 yards, three touchdowns, he’s been unbelievably solid… The bigger the stage, the bigger he plays.”
Nicks ended the season with several more UNC receiving records added to his collection, among them career touchdown catches. But more than the records, his performances have created memories that will endure among UNC fans and his teammates for a very long time. Quarterback T.J. Yates didn’t get to see Nicks’ circus catch, but he knew something special had happened.
“No, I didn’t (see it)," Yates said. "I got up off the ground, and I was like, ‘What just happened?’ because I knew I threw it behind him. I had no idea what he did after that. It just amazes me what that kid can do."
Defense Finds a New Star
While there wasn’t exactly a defensive counterpart to Hakeem Nicks’ exploits, Deunta Williams came close – the sophomore safety had an interception, a safety and a fumble recovery. And though UNC fans are used to Williams having a big day defensively, Da’Norris Searcy found himself in a new role – a quasi-linebacker/safety.
Searcy came up huge, particularly in the second half. When the dust settled, the sophomore had 10 tackles, two sacks, and two tackles-for-loss.
“Basically what we did was we played the two defensive linebackers, traditional linebackers in Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, and we used Jon Smith and Da’Norris Searcy somewhat in a quasi-nickel role, quasi-linebacker role,” Davis said. “It was an attempt to get more speed on the field, more athleticism because of all the jail-break screens and all the draws, and certainly the athleticism of the quarterback, and those kinds of packages. I don’t know what kind of schemes we’ll going to face next year, but it will certainly be an experience that now that we’ve done it, it will be a package we can carry 13, 14 games next season.”
West Virginia Adjusts
After Nicks' big first half, however, West Virginia made some adjustments for which UNC had no answer.
“They kind of started rotating a safety over towards me a lot, after the first half I drew a lot of attention," Nicks said. "They played very well, kept a safety over the top and kept him deep and kept the corner with like a two-man press.”
Davis went a little further in-depth with the Mountaineers' adjustments.
“One of the things, besides rolling a safety, some of the times they had guys in the box and they were running somebody out underneath him also,” Davis said. “They mixed it up a little bit to try to take away the things he had done, and one of the things we tried to do was move him around and not always put him in a stationary same position because he had just a great start to the ball game and we liked the match-ups - we felt like we had some very favorable match-ups - but they did a nice job of doing some stuff to take them away.”
While North Carolina tried to counteract the adjustments by looking elsewhere, the threat of the other UNC targets catching the ball just did not contain the same element of fear for West Virginia. With Nicks bottled up, the North Carolina offense lacked the same explosiveness.
“Greg [Little] had some catches, we tried to get the ball into the hands of Richard Quinn, and some other guys, get the ball in the hands of Bobby Rome and stuff and hopes that that would kind of drive them into some different coverages,” Davis said.
It didn’t work. On one second-half series, there were three straight drops – one by Bobby Rome, one by Christian Wilson, and one by Little.
“It does stick in the back of your mind, but you play through it and that’s what makes you a better player and a stronger player, mentally,” Little said of the dropped pass. “In the back of my mind, I dropped one, but I am going to make a play later on during the game to help us win it.”
There are multiple points in the game one could point to as a pivotal moment – that’s the nature of a one-point loss. The dropped passes by Greg Little and others were key points. Yates’ interception that killed UNC’s comeback attempt was yet another.
Shaun Draughn’s fumble in the fourth quarter was also one of those moments. Perhaps the biggest one. The Tar Heels had held West Virginia on a fourth down play and were looking to add to their 30-24 lead when the ball popped loose as Draughn was fighting for extra yardage. That turnover shifted momentum irrevocably towards the Mountaineers.
It is a story that was a little too familiar to UNC fans coming down the stretch of the 2008 season. Aside from a blow-out loss to N.C. State, the Tar Heels' other four losses were by a combined total of nine points.
What is it going to take to turn these losses into victories?
“Last year we lost a lot of close games, this year, we lost about half of those close games, so maybe next year, we’re just going to build on it and just keep getting better and cut down on those little losses because we’ve been there before,” Yates said.
“Just capitalize on opportunities," Little added. "Capitalize in the red zone, capitalize on your shots, capitalize on your opportunities that you have to make a play, and to make a big play.”
Davis provided his insight as to the whereabouts of his program.
“There is absolutely no way that a program goes from somewhere down low in the mountain, you don’t go to the summit instantly,” Davis said. “There are steps you have to take as a program and this week was a big step for our program, this was a big step for our team, to be able to play against a really super-talented football team and compete the way that we did and put ourselves in a position to win."
The next step for UNC is to go from putting themselves in a position to win, to winning.