For Carolina, call it a weekend of staying relevant.
The football Tar Heels spanked a bad Virginia team to win their third straight and keep their drive alive for a winning season and bowl bid. Their continued improvement is no less than remarkable, as they played perhaps their most complete game of a season that once looked disastrous.
On an emotional Homecoming weekend, sophomore Marquise Williams wore the jersey number (2) of his injured mentor Bryn Renner and became the first quarterback in UNC history to run, pass and receive touchdowns in a single game. He ran for one, threw for two and caught one on the third reverse pass touchdown Larry Fedora’s offense has scored this season.
At 4-5 after a 1-5 start, Carolina now faces a season-defining trip to Pitt (5-4), which made the challenge more daunting by upsetting No. 23 Notre Dame Saturday at Heinz Field. The Tar Heels will have to shut down veteran Panthers’ quarterback Tom Savage and find a way to solve a stout Pitt defense in order to reach .500 and play for bowl eligibility in their last two games.
Looming on November 30 is an unlikely showdown with Duke, which moved to 7-2 by beating beleaguered N.C. State with a second half surge. Carolina cannot win the Coastal Division, but could keep the Blue Devils out of the ACC Championship game if things fall a certain way the next two weekends.
Duke football, which began the day having lost 19 of its last 20 November games, joins its basketball brethren in the headlines this time of the year. David Cutcliffe’s Devils have as many victories as UNC and NCSU combined, in their first winning season (and by virtue of their first five-game winning streak) since 1994.
Duke basketball, of course, is in its customary position as a top 10 program, and is garnering a lot more attention than Roy Williams’ Tar Heels, who opened their season Friday night in a half-empty Dean Dome against Oakland University. They won easily with record-breaking first half shooting (74 percent) and a mishmash lineup still lacking suspended P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.
Carolina started two point guards and someone with similar initials (J. P. Tokoto) to keep P. J.’s position warm. Fans who were thrilled by the 84-61 slaughter must acknowledge the opposition and that the season is still riddled with question marks over who will play and how well. Right now, a predicted eighth or ninth place finish in the new 15-team ACC sounds about right.
Carolina football is also trying to remain relevant with a fast finish. Spurred by the tweet from tight end Eric Ebron – ”Let’s win for Bryn” – the grid Heels were all over the hapless ‘Hoos team from Charlottesville that has become irrelevant under coach Mike London, who is under fire but also under contract for an $8 million buyout if he is fired.
After Marquise hit Quinshad Davis and Quinshad hit Marquise with TD passes, it was 14-zip. After freshmen Ryan Switzer’s sweet 85-yard punt return and Dominique Green’s great 62-yard pick six (around ‘Quise’s 3-yard scoring run), it was 35-7, and most of a good crowd had continued on to its next Homecoming activity by the time Thomas Moore hit a field goal and yet another freshman, Khris Francis, caught another Williams touchdown pass to complete Carolina’s 586 yards of total offense.
Fedora called the 45-14 win his young team’s best all-around game of the season and credited the freshmen and sophomores who “continue to make big plays.”
“As a coach, you want to get better every week, and that’s what we’re doing,” Fedora said.
That’s what all Carolina teams have to do to stay relevant these days against the expanding and encroaching competition.