Inside Carolina/Jim Hawkins

UNC's Practicing the Improbable Pays Off

Nick Weiler's 54-yard field goal lifted UNC to a last-second 37-35 win over No. 12 Florida State.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Sitting on a media dais in a small concrete box of a room underneath Doak Campbell Stadium, Nick Weiler paused to search his mind for a game-winning field goal in his past. He could not remember any, not in Pop Warner or high school, and definitely not during his career at North Carolina.

Such experiences, by large measure, reside in kids’ imaginations and play out in random backyards across the country. Regardless of sport, an opportunity to win a game in the final seconds is what drives so many to football fields, basketball courts and hockey rinks. Titles aside, living in that victorious, singular moment is an adrenaline rush otherwise unattainable.

Despite the 54-yard game-winner at Florida State representing Weiler’s first such kick - not to mention counting as the second-longest make in school history - it was a situation he had practiced time and time again, which helped to alleviate the novelty and dismiss the tension involved.

“We run through two-minute situations all of the time,” Weiler said after UNC’s 37-35 victory. “So in the past three years, I’ve hit a lot of last-second kicks, overtime kicks in two-minute situations, running on the field with no time left. We’ve done that situation a million times.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Mitch Trubisky offered similar comments immediately following last weekend’s 37-36 come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh. Larry Fedora has been known to rack his brain to come up with obscure last-second scenarios to throw at his team in practice. The intent is to not only test his players’ resolve, but to eliminate the emotions of shock and futility.

“That’s exactly what we do in practice,” Trubisky said. “That’s the reason we do what do. We’ve been in that situation before with 23 seconds, 29 seconds, two timeouts, no timeouts. We practice all of those situations in two minutes, so we know what we have to do. We made it happen. We did exactly what we do in practice.”

Those are not the words of a quarterback in disbelief that UNC rallied for its most significant road victory since topping No. 9 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in 1996. Those are the words of a quarterback that expected to win. He was not alone.

“Guys were comfortable,” wide receiver Ryan Switzer said. “We were not too concerned. Obviously those situations don’t always work out, but we feel like we’re prepared enough to do it. Guys weren’t nervous. We had the ball in our hands with a chance to win it, and as an offense, that’s what we want.”

After FSU’s Aime Walvenski blocked Weiler’s extra point attempt with 2:31 to play, the Seminoles took advantage on their ensuing possession, taking a 35-34 lead on Deondre Francois’s two-yard touchdown run with 23 seconds to play.

Despite the Doak Campbell Stadium crowd celebrating victory a bit prematurely, Trubisky and his offense trotted out onto the field and picked up 38 yards in three plays. Weiler had told his head coach on the previous possession that he felt comfortable kicking from the 35, although he would later tell reporters he made one from 38 or 39 in pregame warmups. UNC ran out of time at the 37, leaving just four seconds for Weiler’s game-winning opportunity.

Trubisky, no longer having control of the game, did the only thing he could think to do.

“I don’t know if you’re supposed to talk to a kicker before he kicks the game-winner or not,” Trubisky said. “I just went over to him and I said, ‘I love you no matter what.’ I had a good feeling that he could make it from there. He made a hell of a kick.”

Weiler knew he made solid contact and liked the trajectory, although he also knew the ball had to travel a long way to clear the cross bar.

“I saw that it had the right line and I was looking straight, just looking at the referee under the uprights just to make sure,” Weiler said. “Once he gave the hands up, I was out. Next thing I remember was the dog pile.”

The margin between the practice field to the game, that transitional period that coaches so desperately work to minimize if not eliminate, is stripped bare under the bright lights. Whatever gap there may be will be exposed. It’s in that realization that doubt emerges and confidence falters.

“We know he can do it, but when you’re playing Florida State and it’s really happening, you get a lot of mixed emotions,” defensive end Mikey Bart said. “We’re very glad that he made it.”

For a kicker attempting his first career game-winning field goal, Weiler acted like he had done it plenty of times before.

“I thought it was going in from the start.”

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