A Focus on Finishing

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 25 North Carolina proved last Saturday that it had learned its lesson in holding off Miami's furious rally after failing to finish the job against Florida State four weeks ago. Now the Tar Heels must apply that same approach in finishing their season after faltering down the stretch in '07 and '08.

Butch Davis' mantra of shared experiences has come to fruition in recent weeks, preventing another late collapse against the Hurricanes while also withstanding a rash of critical injuries in defeating Duke on Nov. 7. As soon as Saturday night's victory was official, rumblings of a 9-3 season echoed throughout Chapel Hill and for good reason – Boston College's four ACC wins have come against teams with a combined 8-17 league record, while N.C. State has given up 30 points or more in seven straight contests.

But North Carolina has been in a similar position before under Davis. In '07, the Tar Heels needed to win their final three games to qualify for a postseason bowl berth, but watched as fourth-quarter leads at N.C. State and Georgia Tech vanished in defeat.

Last season, No. 17 UNC took a 7-2 record and a legitimate shot at the Coastal Division crown into College Park only to watch those plans wash away in the Maryland rain. Three losses in Carolina's final four games resulted in an 8-5 record accompanied with a bitter aftertaste.

"I think some of the same things that allow you to finish games certainly become evident as you try to learn to finish seasons," Davis said. "… Kids, when they're freshmen and sophomores, a lot of times they can't even appreciate the fact how tough it is to win games. Winning these games is a knockdown, drag-out every single Saturday. The minute that you think something is going to be easy, it almost assuredly won't be easy."

According to Davis, you can chalk the '08 tailspin up as another learning experience.

"There was a huge sigh of relief that we had finally accomplished something," Davis told reporters during his Monday press conference. "So as we've talked about all season long, you get tests and this is another one of those tests with your players and with your program that this season is not over with and that we want to finish well."

While Davis insists that his coaching staff doesn't talk to the players about postseason plans, several Tar Heels indicated that bowl talk has surfaced in the locker room.

"It was obviously one of our goals at the start of the season," junior tight end Zack Pianalto said. "Now that we've attained that, it's something that we can't get complacent with. Last year we were 7-2 at one point and went 1-2 the last three games [of the regular season], so all of our focus is going toward Boston College. We're just going to continue to take it one week at a time and hopefully we'll keep on having the success that we're having and it will give us a shot at a little better bowl maybe."

One of the difficult lessons for players is that building a football program takes places over series of seasons, not just during the course of one season. The first three years of the Davis era have been more about securing a foundation than anything else, and that includes consistent improvement every single week.

"I think every season – and it won't change whether it's with injuries or without injuries – one of the hallmarks of a football team is that you should have some reasonable expectations to continue to get better as the season goes along because you've got the benefit of more games, more experience, more playing opportunities [and] being exposed to playing under pressure at times," Davis said.

There is plenty of speculation floating around that North Carolina could wind up in Nashville for the Music City Bowl whether it wins or loses the last two games on its schedule. Other options remain on the table, but it would be easy for the Tar Heels to just be content with their second-straight bowl appearance for the first time since the late-90's.

But in terms of program-building, the benefit of a potential 10-win season is monumental. That end goal carries with it a top-20 national ranking, a late recruiting surge and ear-deafening levels of preseason hype heading into the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against LSU to start the 2010 campaign.

"[The key is] just staying hungry and knowing that there's more out there," Pianalto said. "There's always a chance to go out there and win one more for the team. So that keeps guys hungry and then there's the sense of getting better as a team. We haven't played as good as we've wanted to on the offensive side of the ball, so we have two more chances to go out there and work the kinks out before the bowl game."

North Carolina has shown over the last three weeks that it has the ability to put forth a winning effort for 60 minutes on the football field. The next step in this program's evolution involves the Heels proving that they can maintain that winning mentality down the home stretch of a grueling 12-game season.


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