There will be considerable time spent over the next two weeks dissecting UNC’s shortcomings in front of a sell-out crowd and a national television audience at Kenan Stadium.
The Aztecs outgained the Tar Heels, 509-394, and dominated the time of possession, 37:26-22:34. More concerning was San Diego State’s ability to control the trenches for most of the game, gashing the UNC defensive front for 168 yards on 35 carries (4.8 ypc) and holding the Tar Heel running backs to 73 yards on 20 carries (3.7 ypc).
But while San Diego State may have delivered an inordinate amount of body blows, it was the Tar Heels that landed the haymakers.
The first came courtesy of cornerback Brian Walker, who sat out the season opener due to a suspension. San Diego State was facing a 2nd-and-goal from the 5-yard line early in the second quarter. UNC countered with a five-man front as Jeff Schoettmer moved down from his linebacker spot. The tight end opposite him released into the end zone, leaving Schoettmer in a foot race with quarterback Quinn Kaehler, who was scrambling to his left.
The pressure forced an errant throw into the end zone, which Walker grabbed and returned 100 yards for the touchdown to give UNC a 7-0 lead. It was the third 100-yard interception return in school history.
Walker returned his second interception 10 yards to San Diego State’s 14-yard line in the fourth quarter to set up a Nick Weiler field goal, but not before the offense provided a big play of its own.
Trailing 24-14 with 13:56 to play, Marquise Williams took the snap from his own 9-yard line and read the safety sliding to the three-man left side of UNC’s formation. With no safety help over top, Mack Hollins ran a go route down the right seam and Williams found him off play-action for a 91-yard touchdown pass.
Williams overthrew two deep balls last week that likely should have been touchdown passes. That wasn’t the case this time, though.
“I was like, ‘If I underthrow this ball, I’m going to take my own self out,’” Williams said. “And I knew I couldn’t underthrow the ball to Mack Hollins because he’s pretty fast and I knew I had to get it out.”
Walker’s pick-six and Hollins’s touchdown marked the first time in UNC school history that the Tar Heels had two plays of 90 yards or longer.
The biggest play of the night, however, was only a fraction of that yardage.
On 1st-and-goal from the 3-yard line and less than 20 seconds to play, Kaehler dropped back and fired a pass to the end zone near the left sideline. Scott slid in front of the intended receiver, securing both the ball and UNC’s dramatic victory.
“Coach Vic [Koenning] called man coverage, so Des [Lawrence] and me decided to press since they were on the 3-yard line,” Scott said. “And when the receivers saw we were pressing, they communicated to each other for a pick. My man ran a wheel route and he was running out of the end zone, so I decided to look back at the quarterback and he threw it back shoulder.”
Scott, who earlier had taken a bad angle on Donnel Pumphrey’s 12-yard touchdown run, made amends with a clutch play with the game on the line.
“We made enough mistakes to lose the game, but we made enough plays to win the game,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters during his postgame press conference.
Coaches of every sport say it’s easier to correct mistakes following a win than a loss. And while there’s plenty for UNC’s coaching staff to correct during the bye week, the confidence that comes in executing big plays – an eraser, of sorts – is far more valuable in the long run.
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