The 2014 UNC football season will likely be remembered for its incredible balance of frustration and excitement. Head-scratching coaching decisions paired with play calls of perfection; miscues and missed assignments paired with stellar individual plays in clutch moments.
The Tar Heels (6-5, 4-3 ACC) weren’t perfect in their 45-20 dismantling of No. 25 Duke in front of a national primetime audience on Thursday, but they were closer than they have been at any other point of the season.
“This is the team that we should have been a long time ago,” quarterback Marquise Williams said following the game.
The defense forced a Duke team that doesn’t turn the ball over to cough the ball up twice in the first quarter. UNC scored 14 points off those turnovers, including a fumble recovery for touchdown by beleaguered senior safety Tim Scott.
T.J. Logan took advantage of the sizable holes his offensive line created to churn out 116 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, continuing the resurrection of a running game that many had written off weeks, if not months, ago. And Marquise Williams did what he usually does, throwing for 276 yards and two touchdowns and running for 98 more yards and two more touchdowns.
UNC gained a season-high 591 yards of offense and held Duke to 387 yards, marking just the second time this season the Tar Heels have held a FBS opponent to under 400 yards.
The Tar Heels’ previous four FBS wins this season were marked by last-minute drama, complete with an end zone interception, an onside kick and a pair of game-winning drives with just seconds left on the clock. This victory – UNC’s first over a ranked opponent on the road since 2010 – was over by halftime.
UNC failed to capitalize on its opportunity to embarrass its rival on national television, as Williams lost three fumbles inside Duke’s 35-yard line, including two in the red zone. His defense stood strong each time, however, preventing the Blue Devils from scoring off the miscues.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora has often brushed aside criticism of his defense this season, electing instead to praise the camaraderie between all three phases, as evidenced by a steady stream of encouraging words on the sidelines even after turnovers, 3-and-outs and opponents’ scores. This win served as yet another example.
“Marquise doesn’t want to put the ball on the ground, now,” Fedora said. “He’s got a lot of pride. He was mad at himself, really, and I could hear defensive guys, ‘Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it.’
“We’ve talked about that this whole year that no matter what, if they’ll just stay positive and keep encouraging guys, good things will happen.”
The third-year UNC head coach provided some insight into his personal preseason expectations when asked if the team that showed up on this night was the one he thought he would have in August.
“Well, it was the team that I expected to grow to,” Fedora said. “I didn’t expect it early on because we were too young in too many places.”
The Tar Heels provided a glimpse of this potential early against Notre Dame with defensive turnovers and offensive scores, although that display was eventually muted and the game evolved into an offensive shootout.
That wasn’t the case in Durham as UNC secured its postseason eligibility. The Tar Heels were the better team across the board for the entirety of the full 60 minutes.
“Gosh, I wish we had just put something like that together earlier in the season,” sophomore wide receiver Ryan Switzer said. “But man, we played great tonight.”
It may have been a little late in coming, but UNC finally delivered a product on the field worthy of the preseason hype.
Heels Shine in Primetime
Inside Carolina Top Stories
Hollifield Feels at Home at UNCThe four-star linebacker could "totally" see himself playing at UNC.
Inside Carolina5:39 AM
Jackson, Switzer Awarded Patterson MedalPatterson Medal is awarded annually to the school's top athletes.
Inside CarolinaYesterday at 9:30 AM
Upgrades, On-Field Success Define '16-17UNC has begun work on roughly $100 million worth of facility upgrades and renovations.
Inside CarolinaMonday at 2:46 PM
ICTV: Freak Show WR-DB One-on-Ones IMost of UNC's top receiver and defensive backs targets -- including commits and national recruits -- participated in Fedora's Freak Show's one-on-one competition. Watch how they…
Inside CarolinaMonday at 10:11 AM