CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It was sloppy. There were miscues and turnovers, as well as a failed two-point conversion and penalty flags by the dozens.
All that mattered at the end, however, was that North Carolina had extended its winning streak to six games and moved to 3-0 in the ACC for the first time since 1997 with a 26-13 victory over Virginia.
“A win is a win,” quarterback Marquise Williams said during his postgame interview. “We find ways to win football games. That’s all that matters. It was real ugly, but I’ll take it.”
UNC (6-1, 3-0 ACC) won the first five games in its current winning streak by an average of 28.6 points per game. The Cavaliers (2-5, 1-2 ACC) served as a speed bump of sorts, staying within a field goal until the fourth quarter.
After a raucous atmosphere fueled the Tar Heels in last week’s 50-14 rout of Wake Forest, the Kenan Stadium crowd – officially announced at 52,000, well below the 63,000 capacity – failed to muster a similar vibe on Saturday. UNC had as many turnovers as scoring drives (2) in its five first-half drives as the Oldest Rivalry in the South entered halftime deadlocked at 13-13.
The Tar Heels mirrored that scoring output in the second half, which was plenty enough due to the evolving play of Gene Chizik’s defense.
UNC’s defense held the Cavaliers to half of its season scoring average, continuing a trend of playing its best ball after halftime. Virginia gained 226 yards at a 6.6-yards-per-play clip in the first half, only to manage 127 yards on a 3.6-yards-per-play average over the final 30 minutes.
The Tar Heels forced turnovers on five of UVa’s final six drives. UNC has held its five FBS opponents to 24 second-half points.
Despite those defensive statistics, UNC was never able to pull away from Virginia, partly due to season-highs in penalties (13) and penalty yards (135). Even the officiating crew turned in a sloppy performance, flagging wide receiver Mack Hollins for a questionable offensive pass interference penalty inside the five-yard-line just before halftime that prevented UNC from taking a lead into the locker room.
“It was a sloppy game in a lot of different ways,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said, “especially with penalties and offensively shooting ourselves in the foot. But we did what we needed to do to win a Coastal Division game, and that was important for us.”
The last time UNC played a game with this many miscues, it lost to South Carolina, 17-13, in the season opener. That loss alone made the players hesitant to celebrate their play despite the result.
“No one wants to have a sloppy game,” senior right guard Landon Turner said. “I’m happy that we won; I’m proud that we won. I’m proud of the way we stuck it out. But it’s still bittersweet because I think there are a lot of little things that we still need to work on. That’s the way we’re going to have to look at it. Guys are going to have to refocus. We don’t want that to happen again. It went our way, but it very easily couldn’t have.”
Fedora credited his team with persevering against the adversity. The Tar Heels have been so good of late that they had practically coasted to lopsided victories in most games since the loss in Charlotte. Saturday’s reality check allows for plenty of corrections work without the disappointment of defeat attached.
“I’m going to make it good, no matter what,” Fedora said. “It’s a win, so we’re going to make it good. We’ll point out the problems that we had, but how we overcame them is very important. And those are the lessons, that we can overcome problems, because there’s going to be more problems coming in the future. There’s no doubt about it.”
Now that UNC has navigated its potential trap games in ACC play, the focus turns to Coastal Division clashes that will likely determine the ACC Championship Game participant. Up next is a road trip to No. 25 Pittsburgh (6-1, 4-0 ACC) on Thursday night.