After the Florida State loss, the mental toughness of this team - and maybe this program - was called into question. Just when were the Tar Heels going to be tough enough to finish a game out in the fourth quarter?
Thursday night in Blacksburg, the Tar Heels had an answer.
North Carolina played surprisingly well through the first half, took an unexpected 7-0 lead into the locker room, and held a 14-7 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. You would expect Virginia Tech to battle back, and that’s exactly what the Hokies did – first with a drive resulting in a field goal trimming UNC’s lead to 14-10.
On the ensuing UNC possession, something happened that has happened all too often in T.J. Yates’ career: he made an inexplicable, dangerous throwing error, and the resulting pick yielded points to the opposition. The Hokies scored an easy touchdown – five yards were all that were required. Now with a lead of 17-14, the Hokies could comfortably rely on the Tar Heels to fold as they did against Florida State a week ago.
On the road, in Blacksburg, on Thursday night where the Hokies are 9-2 overall, the 16. 5-underdog Tar Heels got up off the mat, snapping a 12-game home winning streak for the Hokies.
“The funny thing about it was, right when that happened, nobody lost composure," tight end Zack Pianalto said. "We went over to the sideline and I probably saw eight, ten guys, going up and down saying, ‘You know what, we’re going to take this ball down the field and we’re going to score.
“We had no doubt in our mind.”
How does that happen? How does a team begin to believe in itself? It starts with leadership, and in this particular case, senior safety Melvin Williams may have been the catalyst that sparked the Tar Heels’ improbable comeback.
“After the Florida State game, people kind of questioned our fourth quarter toughness,” Yates said. “We knew we were tougher than what we showed that last Thursday night. We kind of wanted to prove it. We kind of huddled up as a team, and Melvin Williams called the team together at the start of the fourth quarter and got us all together and said, ‘Listen, everybody, this is our time to shine.’”
And shine they did, on both sides of the ball and on special teams. First, the Tar Heels drove the ball 78 yards in 16 plays, converting third downs (10 of 19 on the night) as if it were routine for the Heels, culminating in a Casey Barth field goal and tying the score 17-17. Then on the ensuing kickoff, the Tar Heels did a great job in kickoff coverage. Finally, the UNC defense forced a fumble, giving the offense the ball at Virginia Tech’s 24-yard line.
What does this win mean to the Tar Heels? It opens up all sorts of possibilities, but perhaps most important of all it showed, before a national TV audience, that the Tar Heels may be ready to shake the “soft” label.
“The word around about this program over the past few years is that ‘Those guys are soft,’” said senior defensive end E.J. Wilson. “Today we proved we can go out against a great Virginia Tech football team and gut out a win.”
Greg Little added, “Just being able to handle adversity, when you’re down, don’t think of it as the game is over, just be able to battle back. The offense has taken a lot of heat this year, and the way we played when we were down I think is tremendous, it gives me confidence and the team confidence.”
If you’ve been in the same place before, five times in the last two years to be precise, and came up short on each occasion, how important was this win to this team and this season?
“I thought our kids today, I thought they rose up,” head coach Butch Davis said, “They proved something to themselves: if you don’t give up on yourself, you always have a chance.”