UNC's Identity Coming into Focus

The Tar Heels rallied from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit to win its ACC opener against Pittsburgh on Saturday.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The crafting of a football team’s identity is an organic endeavor.

There is no urgency in the matter in other collegiate sports, primarily due to the large volume of games. There’s only a promise of 12 games in college football, however. Twelve games to see how more than 100 unique pieces fit together. Twelve games to establish chemistry, that strange intangible that is impossible to manufacture and that can vanish in a single play.

UNC’s coaching staff, like so many others around the country, attempt to manipulate the identity creation process throughout the offseason, beginning in February with Blue Dawn, moving to spring practice in March and April and extending into the summer months.

The emphasis is unity through adversity, although simulating adversity is much like simulating Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Georgia Tech’s triple option. While the intentions are noble, the real thing often holds a different truth.

The first three quarters against Pittsburgh on Saturday provided a glimpse into the statistical foundation that UNC had built in September. Above-average offense, below-average defense. The fourth quarter unveiled what Larry Fedora and his coaching staff have tried to influence over the past eight months: an identity.

“We learned a lot about our football team tonight,” Fedora said following his team’s dramatic 37-36 victory. “We talked about before the game that we had an opportunity to establish the identity of this football team. I can say there’s a lot of grit on this football team, a lot of toughness, and all the intangibles that we need to be successful.”

Stats rarely lie, although emotion lacks a numerical value that can be factored into an equation. Pitt ran at will – 228 rushing yards at a 4.9-yards-per-carry clip through three quarters – until the Tar Heel defense decided it was time to make enough plays to give its offense an opportunity to win the game. Three of Pitt’s final four drives were three-and-outs.

“We didn’t make any adjustments,” junior defensive tackle Nazair Jones said. “We were playing the same calls. We just had guys that stepped up and grew a pair, to say the least, and decided that we were going to win this game.”

There’s a difference in being an elite defense and an opportunistic defense. The former is stout most of the time, while the latter has an ability to make plays at crucial moments. UNC’s defense is not yet at the level of its 2015 predecessor, although Saturday’s late lockdown offered this season’s first valid comparison.

It also served to fuel the offense’s resurgence in a game in which it had been made one-dimensional.

“During that stretch in the fourth quarter, [the defense] had a lot of stops that we needed as an offense,” junior wide receiver Austin Proehl said. “We weren’t moving the ball in the fourth quarter. We weren’t scoring, and we needed to. They continued to get stops and we did what we had to do at the end. That was the most important thing, coming out with a W.”

After back-to-back three-and-outs, Mitch Trubisky directed 25 snaps of football that will long be remembered at Kenan Stadium. The final snap – one that led to a fade route to Bug Howard for a two-yard game-winning touchdown with two seconds to play – culminated an incredible rally and carved out a significant portion of this team’s identity.

“We really want to forget last season,” Stewart said. “We want to build our 2016 legacy. It’s just a ‘bend but don’t break’ attitude from everybody. We never had losing in our minds.”

Shared experiences play a critical role in molding such beliefs.

“Credit the leadership on this team, the seniors, the guys who have been through the good and the bad and can draw on those experiences,” senior wide receiver Ryan Switzer said. “This is the product of people who use the bad past experiences and turn them into future successes.”

There’s plenty of questions yet to be answered, ranging from run defense to play calling, but Saturday’s closing minutes answered the most pressing question, the one about what this team is made of.


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