North Carolina (8-3, 4-3 ACC) won its fourth-consecutive game on Saturday, marking the first time the program has delivered that long of a streak since winning five straight in 2001.
The Tar Heels ended Boston College’s chances for a third-straight ACC Championship Game early, scoring three touchdowns in a span of 2 minutes, 19 seconds midway through the first quarter to build a 21-0 lead.
Defensive tackle Cam Thomas returned a Dave Skinskie fumble 20 yards for a touchdown and cornerback Kendric Burney promptly added a 29-yard interception return for touchdown, giving the red-shirt junior his fifth pick of the year and a school-record third interception return for touchdown.
Free safety Deunta Williams failed to score on his 21st birthday, settling instead for three interceptions in North Carolina’s most dominating defensive performance of the season. Melvin Williams added a pick of his own after UNC built a 28-13 lead late in the fourth quarter.
But as well as the Tar Heel defense played, the offense executed just as poorly. T.J. Yates (23-of-34, 182 yards) threw three interceptions to boost his season total to 13, including one in the end zone as North Carolina was hoping to build on its 21-13 lead in the third quarter.
Boston College’s Montel Harris ran for 132 yards on 23 carries, and Shinskie (12-of-28, 101 yards, 4 INT) threw his lone touchdown pass to Rich Gunnell from two yards out as the Eagles cut UNC’s lead to 21-13 just before the half.
Ryan Houston (18 rushes, 45 yards) added two one-yard touchdown runs for North Carolina.
The Tar Heels totaled 278 offensive yards while holding Boston College to 198 total yards. UNC also won the frenetic turnover battles, 6-4.
INSIDE THE GAME
More Questions at Quarterback
The offensive game plan appeared to be simple once North Carolina darted out to a 21-0 lead on Saturday – make some first downs, chew up the clock, kick a field goal or two and fly back to Chapel Hill with an 8-3 record.
But that didn’t happen. Instead of capitalizing on the defense’s momentum, as well as their own 11-play, 70-yard game-opening touchdown drive, the Tar Heels did everything they could to let Boston College back in.
Yates was at the root of the problem, making several bad throwing decisions instead of simply throwing the ball away. With a 21-0 lead, the best pass next to a completion is one that lands in the third row.
“It was an ugly game for quarterbacks out there, I’ll tell you that,” Yates said. “The interceptions are just uncalled for. It’s just me making poor decisions. That one in the end zone was just a really poor decision by me. The one that got tipped up – he made a great play on the ball. He just made a great play. And then the other one was on 4th-and-11 and I was just trying to make a play. I knew it was going to be a turnover on downs either way. I just thought I would give it a chance.”
In what should have been a massive blowout on national television turned into UNC’s defense having to drag its offensive counterparts through Boston kicking and screaming across the finish line.
“We’re not really holding up our end of the bargain on offense,” Yates said. “If that defense had half of the day that they did today, we might have had a lot closer game than it was.”
While Yates is in no jeopardy of losing his starting position this season with only two games left to play, it’s evident that spring practice will receive plenty of attention with true freshman Bryn Renner currently sitting at No. 2 on the depth chart.
It’s never a good thing when a head coach elects to defend his quarterback before even being asked about his performance.
“We talked to T.J. after the ball game and kept talking to him during the course of the game, saying, ‘Hey look, you aren’t having a good day, but you’ve got to maintain your composure – we’re going to need you to win the game,’” Davis said. “… I promise you we would not have won eight football games this year had it not been for his play.”
Yates’ role has never been to light up the scoreboard with Colt McCoy-like statistics. Fans expecting that type of production don’t understand where UNC currently sits in the rebuilding process. But Yates is expected to be efficient and to take care of the ball, while stepping out of the way for the defense to deliver its Carolina blue version of pain.
On Saturday, Yates actually got in the way.
Turning Defense into Offense
North Carolina’s 6-to-4 turnover margin may not look overtly devastating, but once you peel back the statistical layers, it becomes obvious that there is plenty of skill on defensive coordinator Everett Withers’ roster.
The Eagles’ four turnovers led to just 13 points, thanks in large part to the defense only gaining 13 returns on the three interceptions and fumble. North Carolina, on the other hand, ate up 171 yards of real estate, scoring two touchdowns and setting up a one-yard touchdown possession for the offense to seal the victory.
In the past two games, the defense has churned out 385 hidden yards compared to the offense’s 607 total yards. And it’s not just coming from one person – D. Williams, Burney, Thomas and M. Williams join Quan Sturdivant, Bruce Carter and Charlie Brown as defensive players that have racked up return yards this season.
“Every one of those guys is potentially a playmaker,” Davis said. “… It makes you dangerous. Pick your poison. There’s no one person that you can say, ‘We’re going to go after this corner, we’re going after this linebacker.’”
Part of the reason is that most of these defenders played offensive positions in high school, similar to how Miami linebacker Dan Morgan excelled as a running back before joining the Hurricanes. Brown was recruited by numerous schools as a slot wide receiver, D. Williams arrived in Chapel Hill with massive hype as a wide receiver and Burney, Carter and Sturdivant played quarterback. Even Thomas saw some action at running back in high school.
“Those guys aren’t the typical throw it to them and they bobble it and they’re not sure if they can catch it, and then they catch it and they’re happy they caught it and then they get on the ground,” Davis said. “These guys instantly convert to offense.”
No Problem, Houston
When Ryan Houston was spotted on the sideline exercise bike instead of in UNC’s backfield in its second possession after halftime, there was undoubtedly concern amongst the Tar Heel fan base. After all, Shaun Draughn, A.J. Blue and Jamal Womble had already been lost for the season due to injuries.
The junior tail back indicated that he took a helmet to his quad in the second quarter, leaving a painful bruise that he played through initially before the trainers sat him down in the third quarter.
“I actually felt better in the second half, but since we had the lead, the coaches didn’t want to take any risks with me further injuring it, so they just kept me on the sideline,” Houston said.
The Matthews, N.C. native did return to the game for UNC’s final touchdown, taking the handoff and barreling over the right side for a one-yard score.
“They were asking if I could go in and I was like, ‘Heck yeah, I can go in – it’s one yard,’” Houston said. “If I’m on a stretcher and [need] one yard, I can get it.”