BLACKSBURG, Va. – On a historic day at Lane Stadium, No. 12 North Carolina made history of its own by clinching its first-ever Coastal Division title.
It was a grind. There were hard hits, questionable play calls and coaching decisions, a plethora of punts and penalties, and ACC referee Ron Cherry, for good measure. It was a fitting conclusion to a decade-long quest rife with disappointment and turmoil.
“I’m really excited for those kids,” head coach Larry Fedora told reporters after the game. “They’ve been through a lot. They’ve got a lot of grit. They’ve worked their butts off, they’ve bought in totally to what we’ve asked them to do in all three phases of the game and they really truly believe that they’ve got each other’s back, no matter what happens. And that was so obvious today.”
With 4:29 remaining, UNC held a 24-10 lead as Marquise Williams stepped to Virginia Tech’s 35-yard-line for a 1st-and-10 play. The fifth-year senior quarterback fumbled the ball, his second of the day, and eight plays later the Hokies scored to cut their deficit to seven points.
With 2:48 remaining, UNC once again had a 1st-and-10, this time near midfield. Williams once again fumbled the ball, his third of the day, and the Hokies tied the game five plays later.
The Lane Stadium crowd, intent on sending head coach Frank Beamer out a winner in his final home game, turned loud and rowdy, although it was not enough. After UNC held Virginia Tech to a field goal on its opening possession of overtime, Williams found redemption on the final play of the game, connecting with fellow senior Quinshad Davis on a 5-yard fade route for a touchdown.
“Coach called a timeout, and they were like, ‘run this play, run that play,’” Davis said. “Coach said, ‘We’re throwing it to No. 14.’ And I said, ‘Good deal, Coach, throw it to me.’ The guy lined up 1-on-1, like they had been doing all day, and I beat him on the route. ‘Quise threw a great ball and I made a good catch.”
UNC’s play was far from the dominance it had displayed in recent blowout wins over Duke and Miami. The Tar Heels churned out 445 total yards of offense on 6.1 yards per play (5.6 ypp after the first quarter) and struggled to find their rhythm until attacking the perimeter with outside zones and zone reads. Elijah Hood, who had just three carries in the first half, exploded after halftime to finish with 115 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.
Gene Chizik’s defense held the Hokies in check into the final rally, limiting its opponent to 403 yards on 82 plays (4.9 ypp).
The Tar Heels spoke of grit after the game, a quality best defined as succeeding through perseverance.
“We knew that we were not going to lose this game,” Williams said. “It didn’t matter how it came out or how ugly it was; we knew we could not lose this game.”
Sometimes that mindset, an unwillingness to lose, is all that’s needed.
“We knew all offseason that we had the pieces in place to be a special team,” said senior linebacker Shakeel Rashad, who led the team with 15 tackles. “And now to actually go out and win the Coastal Division feels great. It sets the tone for the rest of the season going forward. By no means do we feel like we’ve reached the end of our season. We feel like we’ve got a lot of ball left to play.”
Fedora, UNC’s fourth head coach since the ACC began divisional play in 2005, directed the program through a bowl ban in 2012 and three years of probation, as well as a losing record in 2014. He now has the Tar Heels set to play for their first ACC Championship since 1980 and in the College Football Playoff conversation.
UNC fans, starved so long for success on the gridiron, would have been just as elated to sneak into the ACC Championship Game by way of a back door or wide right field goal.
UNC’s march to Charlotte has been nothing of the sort, however. The Tar Heels have crushed their ACC opponents by an average of 18.9 points per game in winning their first seven league games for the first time in school history.
Even in competitive games, such as the one in Blacksburg on Saturday, there was little question as to which was the better team, the more talented. That has rarely been the case for the program out of Chapel Hill.
Virginia Tech is the only team to post a perfect record in the Coastal Division, and Beamer's program accomplished that feat only once (8-0 in ‘10). UNC can equal that mark with a win over N.C. State in Raleigh next Saturday.
Before then, however, the Tar Heels plan to enjoy their Coastal Division title. At least until Sunday.
“It’s going to be the best ride going back home on the bus,” Williams said.