"I think it's important to have a close game at this time of year and win one," said Withers after North Carolina overcame a start in a 14-7 win against a Louisville on Saturday. "I think it's important to go win an ugly football game."
Tailback Giovani Bernard and receiver Dwight Jones each scored touchdowns after halftime for the Tar Heels against a Cardinals team that played without their offensive coordinator
Louisville coach Charlie Strong said offensive coordinator Mike Sanford was still with the program, though what his role would be starting next week had not yet been determined.
For North Carolina (5-1), Bernard scored his eighth touchdown in six games in the third quarter to break a scoreless tie. Bernard also gained 109 yards on 25 carries for his fourth straight 100-plus yard game. The Tar Heels actually needed that kind of effort after gaining just 62 yards on four anemic drives in the first half.
"Yeah, it was one of those 'dig deep' kind of games," Bernard said.
Bernard became the first Tar Heel freshman ever to rush for 100-plus yards in four straight games and the first Tar Heel to do it since Ethan Horton in 1984.
"All the credit goes to the offensive line," Bernard said. "At a certain point, our O-line coach (Sam Pittman) told the line, 'Get it for Gio,' and I choked up a little."
The Tar Heels nearly stalled out on the drive when Bernard scored. Louisville's Marcus Smith sacked Renner, for the second of his three sacks in the game, to create a third-and-16 for the Tar Heels midway through the third quarter.
A 14-yard reception by UNC tight end Christian Wilson made it fourth-and-2 at the Louisville 6, and the Cardinals defensive line then jumped offside, giving North Carolina a first-and-goal from the Louisville 3. Bernard then picked a clear path to the end zone to put the Tar Heels on the board.
Receiver Dwight Jones scored the game-winning touchdown with 12:19 left in the fourth quarter.
On a play covering 43 yards, Jones caught a pass from quarterback Bryn Renner 30 yards down field, raced another nine or ten yards and then won a tug-of-war with two Louisville defenders over the last three or four on his way into the end zone.
During the scoreless first half, Louisville (2-3) sacked Renner four times and dominated the clock in the first half to prevent the Tar Heels from moving the ball.
Louisville's offense, guided by quarterbacks coach, and former Nebraska offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, was able to move the ball at will, monopolizing the clock with 41 plays to North Carolina's 18 in the first half.
But Cardinals kicker Chris Philpott also missed field goal attempts of 40 and 36 yards in the second quarter.
"We saw things in their protection and I think (the misses) had to do with us rushing their field goal team," Withers said.
In Louisville's other solid drive early in the second quarter, North Carolina linebacker Zach Brown picked off freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on second-and-17 from the North Carolina 30 to halt a 16-play Cardinal drive.
The Tar Heels' offense made enough mistakes to limit their own chances in the first two quarters. Carolina's four first-half possessions ended in a punt, a dropped third-and-long pass that would have put the Heels deep in Cardinal territory, the first fumble of the year by Bernard, and a punt.
Louisville executed its only successful drive at the end of the game. Bridgewater connected with tailback Dominique Brown from 18 yards out with 42 seconds left.
"We have to like the way we responded," Strong said. "We just don't like the result of the game."
The Tar Heels earned their eighth straight victory over a non-conference opponent. After losing its previous two meetings with Louisville 34-0 in 2004 and 69-14 in 2005, North Carolina evened the series at 3-3.
"People talked throughout the early part of the season about us starting fast but not doing well in the second half," Withers said. "I think we reversed that today. . I thought (202) yards in the second half was huge."
Strong talks Sanford situationAfter his team's loss to UNC, Louisville coach Charlie Strong addressed the situation with offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, who wasn't at practice most of the week and didn't make the trip this weekend. Quarterback coach Shawn Watson assumed Sanford's play-calling duty against the Tar Heels.
"Mike Sanford is still a part of our staff," Strong said. "Shawn Watson called the plays today. There was no confrontation at all, physical or verbal with Mike Sanford. I don't know where that came from. Shawn Watson will end up calling the plays."
Will Sanford be back on Strong's staff?
"Mike will be back next week," Strong said. "We're going to sit down and talk about it and decide which direction we're going to go."