North Carolina (4-3, 0-3 ACC) built a 24-6 lead less than five minutes into the third quarter behind a solid rushing attack and a dominating defensive performance. Greg Little and T.J. Yates (12-of-25 passing, 64 yards, TD, INT) both rushed for touchdowns, while Yates also took advantage of an E.J. Wilson forced fumble in the first quarter to find tight end Ed Barham across the middle for a 12-yard touchdown pass.
But Ponder found his footing in the second half, completing his last 16 passes for 236 and three touchdowns. For the evening, the ACC's top passer connected on 33-of-40 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns. Rod Owens (9 catches for 199 yards) was the primary benefactor, highlighted by his 98-yard touchdown pass that counts as the longest offensive play in UNC football history.
North Carolina totaled 333 yards of offense, including 238 on the ground, while Florida State tallied 438 yards of offense.
Two quick third-quarter touchdowns closed the Seminoles' deficit to 24-20, and a Dustin Hopkins 40-yard field goal closed the margin to 24-23 with 12:12 left to play. UNC countered with a Casey Barth 26-yarder before Ponder found Beau Reliford for a game-winning 18-yard touchdown reception with 6:20 remaining.
INSIDE THE GAME
The news that Everett Withers' defensive crew led the ACC in total defense (237.7 ypg, 3rd nationally), scoring defense (14.2) and pass defense (125.2 ypg) has been an obligatory factoid for countless media outlets this week. And through the first 31 minutes and 43 seconds of Thursday's loss, the Tar Heel defense lived up to those press clippings, holding Florida State to 77 yards of offense through seven possessions.
That's when the floodgates opened. Ponder directed his Seminoles on four straight scoring drives (three touchdowns, one field goal) totaling 290 yards with a 9.7-yards-per-play average.
But when you peel back the layers of this defense's early season opposition, the truth can be startling.
The Citadel (92nd in total offense) and Georgia Southern (89th) rank near the bottom of the FCS division, while UVa (107th), ECU (93rd) and UConn (62nd) aren't exactly offensive highlight reels waiting to happen. Granted, North Carolina's performance has played a role in those rankings, but the program's showings against the ACC's top-two offenses are telling.
Georgia Tech rolled up 406 yards of offense and literally took the ball, ran away and hid from UNC, while Florida State surpassed its season average by churning out 438 total yards of offense on Thursday.
UNC head coach Butch Davis indicated that this loss may serve as a "little bit of a wakeup call" for his defense.
"Reputations and stats and rankings and all of that stuff are somewhat insignificant," Davis said. "You've got to play. You've got to go out and play fundamentally well and tackle well."
The Thursday night blitzkrieg, otherwise known as The Christian Ponder Show, that rained down on Kenan Stadium was impressive in its own right. But the junior signal caller did more than light up the Tar Heel defense – he completely broke them down.
"The main thing was composure," linebacker Kevin Reddick replied when asked what led to FSU's outpouring of offensive material. "We've got to hold it down when we're up. We've just got to hold the composure down… I guess we got too happy. We were up 24-6. We've just got to hold our composure and stay humble and put our foot on their throat."
There are going to be days when your opponent is simply better than you. And it's okay to get rattled, especially if you're a true freshman like Reddick. But this North Carolina defense is loaded with third-year starters such as Quan Sturdivant, Bruce Carter, Deunta Williams, Marvin Williams and Kendric Burney.
Busted coverages and lack of communication across the various lines of the defense plagued the Heels throughout the majority of the second half.
"It's totally uncharacteristic of us," Wilson said. "I don't know where it came from. There was a lot of miscommunication out there. Guys were confused sometimes. That's something that we're going to have to bounce back from and something we're going to have to learn from."
Davis was asked if his veterans' lack of composure was surprising, to which he responded, "Obviously, yes – there's a lot of things that surprise you from time to time."
A Silver Lining of Significance
In North Carolina's first four games this season against FBS-level competition, the rushing attacked totaled 239 yards on 116 yards, good for a below-average 2.1-yards-per-carry.
Against Florida State, the Tar Heels rolled up 238 rushing yards at a 5.8-yards-per-carry clip, thanks in large part to Shaun Draughn's 126 yards on 23 carries.
"We were pleased with the way that Shaun ran," Davis said. "He was aggressive [and] he challenged the line of scrimmage. We felt like two weeks ago when he played against Georgia Southern that he and Ryan [Houston] really complimented each other… He had a very solid night tonight. It's a shame that it kind of got lost in some of the other things that happened."
But Draughn was only one piece of John Shoop's rushing puzzle. Greg Little (48 yards on four carries) scored UNC's first touchdown on a five-yard reverse, while Johnny White (40 yards on three carries) and Jhay Boyd (21 yards on one carry) also represented the wide receiver corps with a variety of reverses designed to attack FSU's perimeter.
"It's bittersweet," Draughn said. "I feel like we took a step forward as an offense. The offensive line came out and played like I felt they were going to play. We had three great days of practice this week. I had confidence that they were going to play like they did and they did."