This Sunday at 3 pm, the Town of Chapel Hill will hold a ceremony at Peace and Justice Plaza (in front of the post office on East Franklin Street) to add the names of Bill Thorpe and Dean Smith to a marker recognizing local figures who fought for social justice, equality, and civil rights.
Dean Smith’s work for social justice is well known, at least locally: among many other things, he played a major role in desegregating both the ACC and Chapel Hill. His example serves as a powerful testament to the ability of sports and athletics to make a difference for good in the world.
But how effectively are we using that ability? Where are the Dean Smiths of today? Are we using athletics as a force for good in the world, or are we squandering an opportunity?
Deborah Stroman is a sports analyst, an expert on analytics, and a professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. She spoke about that issue on Monday with Aaron Keck. (They also discussed UNC football’s recent success and how teams can manage – or fail to manage – chemistry issues.)
Down 21-0 at that time, all hope looked lost for Head Coach Larry Fedora and his team.
But the Tar Heels stayed resilient, fighting all the way back to defeat the Yellow Jackets 38-31 on Saturday–the biggest comeback in team history, and its first win in Atlanta since 1997.
UNC wins its fourth consecutive game and moves to 4-1 on the year, opening ACC play 1-0 for the first time in Fedora’s four-year tenure. The Yellow Jackets, meanwhile, have now dropped three straight contests, and fall to 2-3 with an 0-2 record inside the conference.
“Just a lot of guts from this team,” Fedora said about the comeback. “In all three phases. Just a tremendous team effort.”
After questions about a possible quarterback controversy dominated the headlines in Chapel Hill this week, senior Marquise Williams was electric against Georgia Tech.
He was efficient throwing the ball, going 13-for-24 for 134 yards–but it was with his legs that he did the most damage. Fifteen times he carried the rock himself, tallying 148 yards and two touchdowns on the ground–not to mention hauling in a receiving touchdown that swung all the momentum over to the boys in light blue.
“I told the guys, ‘When it’s ACC play, that’s when I’m ready to go,'” Williams said after the game. “It shouldn’t be like that way, but when it’s conference time, that’s when I’m ready to go get it.
“This is our chance right now,” he continued. “And I’m seizing that opportunity to do something different around here”
Oddly enough, it was a wide receiver–senior Quinshad Davis–who threw the game’s most important pass. Trailing 28-24 in the fourth quarter, Davis took a hand-off on what looked like a reverse play. However, Williams slipped downfield and Davis threw him a 37-yard bomb that gave UNC its first lead of the day.
“I was looking, and I was like ‘This ball is in the air too long,'” Williams said about the crucial catch. “I said, ‘If I drop this, I am not allowed to go back to Chapel Hill.'”
Sophomore tailback Elijah Hood also contributed a pair of rushing touchdowns on 12 carries, racking up 60 yards in the process.
Georgia Tech was led by quarterback Justin Thomas and fullback Patrick Skov, each of whom ran the ball for 56 yards. Early in the game Skov was unstoppable on runs up the middle, consistently churning out first downs that kept the Tar Heel offense off the field.
Thomas completed 12 of his 21 passes for 162 yards–throwing one touchdown and an interception on the game’s final play.
The first sign of a potential comeback was at the end of the second quarter when Williams led the Tar Heels on a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in just over three minutes. After forcing Tech to punt, UNC got 56 seconds to try and add another to their tally before the break.
They would do just that–as Williams drove the team 37 yards before running it in from seven yards out–cutting the halftime deficit to just 21-14.
A 37-yard field goal from Nick Weiler on the first possession of the third quarter brought the Tar Heels to within four points, but the Yellow Jackets responded with a touchdown drive of their own.
Thomas found freshman Mikell Lands-Davis for a 19-yard score, bringing the lead back to double digits.
A subsequent Hood touchdown brought UNC back within four, but the Yellow Jackets seemed intent on closing this one out.
Reaching the Tar Heels’ 1-yard-line on 3rd-and-goal, it seemed like another score would be a formality. But the defense held strong, stuffing Thomas on 4th down to keep the dream alive.
UNC punted on its next drive, handing the ball right back to Georgia Tech. Then, defensive lineman Junior Gnonkonde forced a fumble, which was recovered by the Tar Heels at the Tech 37-yard line.
“When you get down 21 points you tend to worry about ‘Do we need to score every series?'” Fedora said. “And I thought [offensive coordinator] Seth [Littrell] did a really good job just continuing to do what we do. And the kids responded really well.”
What happened next will go down in history, as Davis found Williams for the game’s signature moment–giving the visiting team its first lead of the afternoon.
A 27-yard rushing touchdown by Williams on the next drive extended the lead to 10, and just about sealed it up.
The Yellow Jackets kicked a field goal with 2:46 to play, but were not able to muster anything else–giving Fedora perhaps the most important win he’s had during his time in Chapel Hill.
UNC has its bye week next week, taking to time to rest and prepare for its next contest–an October 17th home game against in-state rival Wake Forest.
For the first time during Head Coach Larry Fedora’s four-year tenure, the UNC Football team is 3-1 after its first four games. This week the Tar Heels take on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in Atlanta—a place they have not won since 1997.
To come away with the victory, UNC will have to show improvement in its run defense—which ranks 113th in the nation–against Tech’s triple option offensive system.
Last season’s ACC Coastal Division Champions, the Yellow Jackets sit at 2-2 (0-1 in ACC play) so far in 2015—coming off back-to-back losses at the hands of Notre Dame and Duke. This is nothing new for Tech Head Coach Paul Johnson and his team, though, as they took a similar pathway to the conference title game a year ago, losing to Duke and UNC in consecutive weeks before rattling off a five-game win streak to close out the year.
Fedora knows Johnson will use that to motivate his squad going into this game.
“I don’t think Paul is gonna panic by any means,” Fedora said. “He is not that kind of guy. He knows they’re gonna keep doing what they do. He’s gonna get things going in the right direction. I don’t think he’s in any panic mode at all.”
Georgia Tech is known for their unique, old-school triple option offense, which pounds the ball in the running game using clever deception to throw off the defense—with the three options being a run up the middle, a quarterback keeper, or a pitch to the outside.
Currently giving up 228 yards per game on the ground, UNC senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer says he and his group will have to do better–both mentally and physically– to hold the Yellow Jacket running game in check.
“Their offense is unlike any other that we’ve faced so far, or will face [this season]” Schoettmer said. “The triple option’s all about eye discipline and doing your job.
“On any given play you can have a dive player, a quarterback player, and a pitch player. Guys can’t be greedy with their eyes. They gotta keep their eyes in the right place, and really take care of their job, and trust that the other guy is gonna take care of their job.”
One of the other keys for Georgia Tech is that its offense keeps the clock running, shortening the overall length of the game. The Yellow Jackets are highly allergic to passing the ball, as evidenced by the fact that quarterback Justin Thomas has thrown just 58 passes this year—completing just 24 of them for 415 yards.
Tar Heel offensive guard Landon Turner sees that as their biggest weakness.
“With those kinds of teams, when they want to control the clock, they’re not really built to come from behind,” Turner said. “When we get the ball we need to make sure we’re taking advantage of our opportunities and start to get up and put pressure on their offense and not the other way around—with them putting pressure on the clock for us.”
For UNC to jump out to the early lead Turner talked about, they’ll need a clean game from senior quarterback Marquise Williams. Williams, who gets another shot to maintain his hold on the starting job, realizes that with the way Georgia Tech plays—milking the clock down–he may not see the ball as much as he would in other games.
“It’s more important to take care of the football and seizing every possession we get,” Williams said about the offensive strategy. “I think last year [against Georgia Tech] we got maybe 10 or 11 possessions and we seized every possession we got. So we have to take care of the football, move the chains, and try to help our defense not stay on the field that long.”
One thing is for sure heading into this Saturday. Williams and the Tar Heels are fired up to be done with their non-conference schedule. Now it’s on to the big boys, as the cupcakes have all been eaten. With that said, Williams can be forgiven for sleepwalking a bit against Delaware, but Tar Heel fans can rest easy knowing he has a much different attitude about Georgia Tech.
“That’s a great football team,” the senior quarterback said about his opponent. “Two losses, that doesn’t mean nothing. They still got a chance to win the ACC Championship just like we do, in the Coastal.
“Those guys’ll come back. They’re back at home now, in front of their fans, and we’re coming up there. It just seems like every ACC school that plays us comes out bangin’ and ready to go. And we’re excited for another opportunity.”
The game is set to kickoff at 3:30 p.m. and will be broadcast live on WCHL’s airwaves. TV coverage will be shown on ESPNU.
Last week against Delaware, UNC Head Football Coach Larry Fedora made a bold move halfway through the second quarter.
He benched his senior quarterback, Marquise Williams, in favor of sophomore Mitch Trubisky.
Trubisky ended up posting career-best numbers, completing 17 of his 20 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns—leading the team to a 41-14 blowout. With UNC all set for its ACC opener against Georgia Tech this weekend, Fedora has been forced to respond about his latest quarterback controversy.
“Let me go ahead and address the quarterback issue so we don’t have to answer 78 questions about the quarterbacks,” Fedora said at his Monday press conference. “Marquise Williams is our starter.
“Yes, I have talked to him. He knows why I did what did [last Saturday]. That’s where we’re at. He’s our starter going into this game.”
Williams led a touchdown drive on the Tar Heels’ first possession last Saturday, but the team stalled in the red zone on its next two possessions—coming away with just three points combined on those drives. Leading a lesser opponent by a score of just 10-7, Fedora decided it was best to switch things up a bit—bringing Trubisky into the game.
“I was looking for a spark offensively,” he said. “I didn’t think we were executing very well–looking for a spark. [I] put him in there at that time, and I thought he added a little bit to the offense. And as he got rolling, he got hot and things were moving. So I didn’t feel like going back the other way.”
After Trubisky ended up having the best performance of his young career, it inevitably reminded many people of last season. The Tar Heels rotated their two quarterbacks for the early portion of the year before finally settling with Williams as their guy.
Despite trading the job back-and-forth on a regular basis, Williams said he and Trubisky get along just fine.
“There’s no hard feelings,” Williams said after practice Tuesday. “A lot of people might think we hate each other.
“If you didn’t see, I was running down the sidelines on Saturday [while Trubisky was performing well]. As soon as I got home, I texted him and I said, ‘You did a great job today. You seized that opportunity.’”
With the starting job back in his hands, Williams knows he’s going to have to be sharp in order to stay there. He’s struggled dealing with some of the external stress that comes with being a senior, but he knows he’ll have to get past some of that if he wants to have a shot at holding off Trubisky, let alone making it to the next level.
“When [I] think about the draft, and [I] think about the technique I need, the mechanics I have–or getting away from what I’m used to doing–that interrupts things, Williams said.
“I’ve just gotta come out and have fun playing this game. That stuff will come.”
Having two talented and capable quarterbacks seems to be the least of Fedora’s concerns at this point in the season. He has stated Williams will indeed start the game in Atlanta, but he’s still non-committal about whether he’ll use some type of rotation.
“What we’ve done in the past has been good, because Mitch is prepared and ready to go,” Fedora said. “Whether or not we’ll keep going with [the rotation], I really don’t know. I haven’t made a decision like that. And don’t know that I will going into the game.
“It’ll be more about the flow of the game and what’s going on.”
Consistency is truly what Fedora wants to see from Williams, who has been up and down through the first four games. If he can get that, there’s no reason to believe he won’t stick with his experienced leader.
If not, Trubisky has proven to anyone who’s been watching—including his head coach–that he’s plenty qualified to take over if needed.http://chapelboro.com/featured/the-classic-williams-trubisky-debate-heads-to-atlanta/
The Carolina football team is riding a three-game winning streak into ACC play, but all is not entirely well in Chapel Hill.
On the field, Mitch Trubisky’s record-breaking performance against Delaware is a bit of a double-edged sword, leaving Larry Fedora with a tougher decision about who will lead the Tar Heel offense. (Though for his part, Fedora insists there’s no quarterback controversy and Marquise Williams is still number one.)
Off the field, Kenan Stadium has seen remarkably low attendance for UNC’s early home games – not just against FCS opponents like Delaware, but also Power 5 opponents like Illinois.
Kenan-Flagler Business School professor and sports analyst Deb Stroman discussed those issues and more with Aaron Keck on WCHL Monday.http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/stroman-on-sports-too-many-qbs-not-enough-fans/
It’s safe to say nobody saw this one coming.
In a game expected by many to be an easy blowout, the UNC football team was forced to turn to its backup quarterback in order to pull out a 41-14 victory against the Delaware Blue Hens on a rainy Saturday afternoon at Kenan Stadium.
The win brings the Tar Heels to 3-1 for the first time since 2011, while the Blue Hens drop to 1-3 so far in 2015.
Senior quarterback Marquise Williams struggled in the first half. He went 6-of-12 passing for 65 yards, ran for 31 yards and a touchdown, and then was benched after the Tar Heels’ third offensive drive–likely due to the offense’s failure on back-to-back drives to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns.
Mitch Trubisky, Williams’s sophomore backup, made his case for the starting job once he was handed the reins. He was excellent all game long, finishing 17-of-20 for 312 yards and four touchdowns–including two deep scores to junior receiver Mack Hollins. He also showed off his wheels, picking up 39 yards on the ground.
“I wasn’t happy with the way were executing [early in the game],” Fedora said. “And so we put Mitch in, and Mitch ran the offense well and did a nice job. So I decided to leave him in.”
The Blue Hens made UNC work for everything though, as their running game continually frustrated the Tar Heel defense–milking game clock in the process. Running backs Thomas Jefferson and Kareem Williams combined for 258 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries, which was necessary because quarterback Joe Walker completed just 4-of-10 passes for 24 yards on the day.
In fact, Delaware didn’t even complete its first pass of the game until a 6-yard screen from Walker to Jamie Jarmon early in the third quarter.
The Tar Heels held a slim 13-7 lead at halftime, as the defense struggled against Delaware’s ground attack and the offense had problems converting opportunities in the red zone. Not until Trubisky entered the game did UNC’s offense show the explosiveness that fans have come to expect under head coach Larry Fedora.
On just the second play of the afternoon, Delaware tailback Thomas Jefferson broke free for a 72-yard touchdown burst–shocking the Tar Heel faithful.
Including that run, Delaware picked up 158 total yards in the first two quarters–every single one of them on the ground.
“A lot of the [rushing] yards came from just kinda sneaky, someone hits him and then he falls forward for another two or three yards here or there,” said senior linebacker Shakeel Rashad, who led UNC with 10 tackles in the game. “So I think we just gotta find a way to keep driving our feet, get more hats to the ball, and drive it backwards.”
It only took the home team five plays–and just over a minute–to respond with its own explosive touchdown drive, however. Williams found receiver Bug Howard for a 29-yard gain, before scrambling to the end zone for an 18-yard score on the very next play–making the game 7-7 after just over two minutes of game time.
After that, the pace of the game slowed considerably.
Four times in the first half UNC drove down within the Blue Hens’ 20-yard-line, but Williams’s scoring run was the only time the team capped things off with a touchdown. It was also the only time Williams looked sharp, as he just couldn’t seem to get it going in this one.
Junior kicker Nick Weiler missed his first field goal of the game, a 34-yarder on the Tar Heels’ second drive. It was the first time Weiler failed to convert this season. He redeemed himself by making attempts from 46 yards and 26 yards on UNC’s final two drives of the half.
Starting the third quarter with the ball, Trubisky led UNC to its second touchdown of the afternoon when he found Hollins all alone behind the coverage for a 33-yard bomb to the right corner of the end zone.
But the Blue Hens came back with a 13-play scoring drive of their own–continuing to pound the ball down the Tar Heels’ throats. Facing a 4th-and-goal from the UNC 1-yard-line, Jefferson forced his way across the plane to bring his team back within single digits.
Then Trubisky and Hollins kept their connection going, as the sophomore quarterback found Hollins on another deep touchdown throw–this one for 64 yards–that came less than two minutes after the Blue Hens’ scoring drive.
“[Trubisky] can step up when Quise is down and make plays, which is always awesome,” Hollins said after the game. “I’ve had deep balls from Quise last year, so I know he can throw it too. They can both throw it, it’s just the opportunity happened to be in Mitch’s hands.”
From there, the points just kept adding up, as Trubisky played just about as well as he ever has. He added touchdown passes to Howard and Ryan Switzer put the sophomore above the 300-yard mark, and effectively buried the Blue Hens upset chances.
“Coach and the rest of the guys were joking [afterwards], it might have been the haircut,” Trubisky said. “I got a haircut on Friday, so I don’t know. It was fun to come out here and play with the guys. Everyone else played really hard, so it made my job easy.”
Next week brings the start of ACC play, as the Tar Heels travel to Atlanta to face the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and their run-heavy triple option offense. Not only will it be important to shore up that area defensively, but now the team faces what may be an actual quarterback controversy.
Momentum is firmly on the side of the UNC football team at the moment, as it’s coming off back-to-back blowout victories over North Carolina A&T and Illinois.
This week the Tar Heels conclude their three-game home stand at Kenan Stadium against the Delaware Blue Hens. They’re looking to stay sharp in their last game before ACC play begins in October–while also trying to start 3-1 for the first time since 2011.
The Blue Hens come into Chapel Hill with a record of 1-2, and are the second team from the Football Championship Subdivision that UNC has played this season.
Usually this means the game would be an easy blowout victory for the Tar Heels, and another victory towards bowl eligibility. However, NCAA rules state that only one win against an FCS opponent may be counted towards a team’s postseason credentials.
This scheduling curiosity has gotten the attention of fans, media, and even UNC head coach Larry Fedora.
“I don’t really like having two FCS opponents, but it is what it is,” Fedora said at his Monday press conference. “We had two power five non-conference games [against South Carolina and Illinois]. It is what it is.”
He then added a solution, saying that, “I’m OK with having one FCS team and a power five non-conference team. Then having a couple out of conference games where they come from the other five [conferences].”
No matter what conference or division is represented on the other side of the field, Fedora doesn’t want his players sleeping on their opponent– telling them that upsets are part of what makes each week in college football worth watching.
Senior quarterback Marquise Williams even took it upon himself to make sure some of his younger teammates got their minds in the right place.
“I came in the cafeteria and heard some of the freshman [saying] ‘Yo, we gonna be able to play. These guys are not even better than A&T,’” Williams said. “And that’s when I stopped them. I said ‘Did you see Ohio State’s game this past weekend? They only won 20-13.’ It doesn’t matter who you play that weekend, Saturdays are upset days.”
Delaware’s defense has only given up 19 points per game in 2015 under head coach Dave Brock, a former wide receivers coach at UNC—which means a low scoring battle like the one Ohio State recently had with Northern Illinois can’t be ruled out as a possibility. They’ve been a solid program at the FCS level for many years, even producing a recent Super Bowl winning quarterback—the Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco.
“I’m familiar with Coach Brock, who coached here under Coach Bunting [during the 2005 and 2006 seasons],” Fedora said. “He’ll have a very solid team.
“From some of the film I’ve been looking at right now, defensively they run around and make a lot of plays,” he added. “The school has a lot of tradition. I think they have six national championships at the FCS level, so they know how to win. There’s a tremendous amount of pride and tradition there.”
The group that certainly wouldn’t mind a grind-it-out type of game is the much-improved UNC defense.
Riding a streak of three straight outings holding opponents to 17 points or less has junior cornerback Des Lawrence and the rest of the guys on the defensive unit walking around with a huge chip on their shoulders.
“We feel like we should be undefeated,” Lawrence said. “We know that we let the South Carolina game go. That feeling didn’t feel too well after that game.
“So with Delaware coming in here, we’re in front of our fans–so we want to put on a show for them.”
Offensively, the game plan for this week should be pretty simple.
Williams will have to continue to play turnover-free football while also not being afraid to take off and run when it’s necessary. The other key will of course revolve around getting sophomore tailback Elijah Hood as many touches as possible.
Hood, a bulldozer disguised as a football player, is sure to be heavily involved, but there’s a few other things he’d like to see from his team this weekend.
“We had some dropped balls, some missed assignments—we’ve got a lot of stuff to clean up,” Hood said. “Defense had some tackling issues, they wanna secure those tackles a little bit earlier. Every week we just try to get better and better.
“Delaware is no different than Illinois to me,” he added. “They’re no different than South Carolina. They’re no different than A&T.
“I’m coming to destroy them. Like I said earlier, nothing’s gonna change.”
Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 12:30 Saturday afternoon, with the game being broadcast live on WCHL and shown on the Regional Sports Network.
Fans are encouraged to wear white as part of the university’s plan to “white-out” Kenan Stadium. The team will also be decked out in similar attire–white helmets, white jerseys, and white pants.
UNC junior wide receiver Bug Howard tweeted on Tuesday what many Tar Heel fans in attendance were wondering during last Saturday’s game against Illinois. Where is everybody?
Despite Kenan Stadium’s capacity of 63,000, the announced crowd of 41,000 was UNC’s lowest since 2012, when 32,000 fans showed up in the pouring rain to watch a game against Idaho.
The tweet from Howard was an obvious reference to the fact that games at the Dean Smith Center routinely sell out, or are played in front of packed houses.
Not surprisingly, Howard found himself answering to the media just hours after posting his question online.
“I wasn’t sure about the attendance during the game,” Howard told reporters on Tuesday. “I just seen a picture of it.
“When I seen the picture, I was sitting with some basketball guys and we just had a talk. And they was just trying to figure out ways that they could help get people come out and support us.”
Without naming any of the basketball players he spoke with, Howard essentially agreed to take on the role of poster boy for the most recent Tar Heel football attendance crisis. Another game with under 50,000 fans in attendance would mark the first time since 2006 that’s happened on three separate occasions during a season.
It’s these kinds of stats that have players like senior offensive guard Landon Turner trying to come up with some non-basketball related solutions.
“I think the marketing department does a great job, as far as reaching out to the fan base,” Turner said, before offering his take. “I think, if anything, just kind of shifting focus from—obviously our season ticket holders we have now are important—but applying the same thing to people who aren’t, or who are on the fence, or who aren’t as interested [right now].”
While Turner focused on the business side of the dilemma, another Tar Heel wide receiver, junior Ryan Switzer, said it was something he learned in a sports marketing class that’s helped him understand what keeps fans from coming to games.
“We learned a lot about how the home atmosphere is a lot better [than the stadium],” he said. “You can see it on TV. You can have a cold beer in your hand while you’re sitting on the couch.
“Sometimes you can’t blame people for not coming, but we would certainly love to have 65,000 every home game cheering us on,” Switzer added.
All the talk about attendance, and the incredible atmosphere a packed stadium provides, had Switzer thinking back to his days as a high school player being recruited to play at UNC. Although, crowd size was not the final decision maker for him, he still hasn’t forgotten what some of those recruiting experiences were like at other top-flight athletic colleges.
“My most memorable visits were when I went to Penn State, and when I went to ‘Bama—where there were 105,000 people in the stands,” he said. “But Carolina’s a great place and there is few stadiums, especially on campus, like Kenan Stadium–just the all-around atmosphere.”
The real solution for the Tar Heels would be to keep winning games, which quarterback Marquise Williams has stated.
But it’s Howard who sent the tweet heard all throughout Chapel Hill, so he’s the one who forced he and his teammates to answer the tough questions. When asked why he wanted to see more fans out there, Howard’s response was simple.
“If we have a packed crowd—I mean, I feel like we feed off better, energy-wise, with a packed house,” Howard responded matter-of-factly. “So that’s why I feel like you should pack the stadium.”
It’s an easy formula. More wins leads to more fans, which leads to more energy. Which then leads to more wins—or something like that.
Either way, the Tar Heels have made a plea to their fans to show up and support their team this weekend and beyond. If the last two weeks have been any indication at all, they might be rewarded with a blowout victory.http://chapelboro.com/featured/tar-heels-to-fans-where-are-you/
It was another good weekend for UNC athletics, as the Carolina men’s soccer, women’s soccer, field hockey and volleyball teams all posted impressive wins alongside the football team’s shellacking of Illinois. Meanwhile, the national headlines were abuzz with the latest flap between NFL quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers: Rodgers zinged Wilson’s penchant for praising God after wins after his Packers beat Wilson’s Seahawks.
(Not in the national headlines: the ongoing WNBA playoffs. Which raises its own set of questions.)
UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School professor and sports analyst Deborah Stroman joined Aaron Keck on WCHL Monday to talk about these issues.http://chapelboro.com/sports/unc-sports/stroman-on-sports-if-god-is-not-a-tar-heel/
More than two weeks removed from its season opening loss, the UNC football team appears to be moving in the right direction. Saturday afternoon at Kenan Stadium, the Tar Heels put together a balanced all-around effort to hand the Illinois Fighting Illini their first loss of the year, dominating them 48-14.
Now sitting at 2-1 in 2015, UNC and head coach Larry Fedora have won two consecutive games in impressive fashion.
Senior quarterback Marquise Williams led the Tar Heel attack against the Illini, going 17-of-24 for 203 yards and three touchdowns, while also running for 105 yards. He got some solid help from sophomore running back Elijah Hood, who posted 129 yards and a score on 16 carries, and the defense–which held its third straight opponent under 20 points.
“I am proud of the fact that we did play a complete game,” Fedora said. “We made game-changing plays on special teams. Offensively we did a nice job–at times. Defensively we stiffened up when we needed to, and created some takeaways. It was a good team effort.”
Illinois had a big day running the ball with senior tail back Josh Ferguson, who rumbled for 133 yards and a touchdown on 22 touches, but quarterback Wes Lunt struggled to find a rhythm all day long against a much-improved Tar Heel secondary.
For the day, Lunt completed 15 of 32 passes for 140 yards and an interception–failing to record a touchdown as the Illini fall to 2-1 on the season under interim head coach Bill Cubit.
“Lunt’s a good quarterback,” Fedora said. “He can spin it. When they spread you out in their ten personnel, he can throw the ball around really well. I thought the [secondary] responded pretty well. We [allowed] a little less than 200 yards passing. You do that, this day in age, you’re doing some good things.”
With his 9-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, senior Quinshad Davis became the all-time school leader in receiving touchdowns. The score was the 22nd of his career, moving him out of a tie with Hakeem Nicks. Davis caught 5 passes for 56 yards in the game.
Another record, most punt return yards by a Tar Heel in a single game, fell in this one as well. Junior Ryan Switzer picked up 168 yards in this fashion–including an 85-yard touchdown–breaking a record that had stood since 1957.
On the game’s first drive, the Tar Heels appeared to be in trouble–as the Illini marched down the field with ease, all the way to the UNC 2-yard line. Then on 4th-and-1, the defense held strong. Cornerback Brian Walker broke up a pass in the end zone headed for Illinois receiver Geronimo Allison to keep the game scoreless.
Hood then burst through the line for a 39-yard gain on the Tar Heels’ second offensive play of the afternoon. It all went to waste, though, when Williams threw an interception just a few plays later.
Momentum appeared to be with the visiting side at that point in time, but a quick three-and-out by the Illini allowed the Tar Heels to get the ball right back. Six plays and 37 yards later, they went ahead on the scoreboard with a 48-yard field goal by kicker Nick Weiler.
From that point on, there was no looking back.
The lead would be stretched to 10 on the next drive after UNC sophomore cornerback MJ Stewart intercepted a pass by Lunt which was headed towards the sideline. The Tar Heels took over at the Illinois 41, and scored just over a minute later after senior tailback Romar Morris ran it in from 7 yards away. It was the first touchdown allowed by Illinois in 2015.
Switzer got the crowd going with an electric 71-yard punt return after Illinois failed to produce in its next opportunity–leading to another field goal by Weiler, this one from 32 yards, giving the home team a 13-0 lead.
But Illinois responded by running the ball right down UNC’s throat.
After breaking loose for a 52-yard run, Ferguson pounded it across the goal line to bring the Illini back within six points. In the first half alone, Ferguson dashed for 106 yards on 14 carries, including the touchdown.
Not wanting to be outdone, Williams broke free on the following drive for a 41-yard scamper–showing fans a glimpse of last year’s Marquise Williams, the one that led the team in rushing.
“We’ve always said he can beat you with his arm or he can beat you with his legs,” Fedora said. “He knows he’s gonna get a few of those opportunities in a game. Before the game I just said ‘Hey, when you do run, run to score. Don’t just run to get a first down, run to score.”
Although he didn’t score on that run, he found Davis in the back of the end zone two plays later for the record-breaking touchdown–a moment that he’d been waiting for all season, saying that the monkey is finally off his back.
Each side then let scoring opportunities slip through their hands early in the third–UNC had a sure touchdown pass slip through Switzer’s hands, and Illinois had a 45-yard field goal bounce off the uprights.
But Switzer found redemption at the end of the quarter, as Williams found him wide open downfield for a 34-yard score–burying the Illini in a 20-point hole after going into the half ahead 20-7.
He would later score again with seven minutes to play in the fourth on an 85-yard punt return, which was the Tar Heels’ final score of the game. It also gave Switzer that UNC single-game punt return yardage record that had stood for 58 years.
“I could feel it,” Switzer said about his record-breaking day. “Anytime [a punter] doesn’t rugby [kick] the ball or take forever to kick it, you’ve got a chance to return it. It’s in the air and the guys are slow getting down the field.
“That first return [the 71-yarder] I could feel that it was gonna be a big day for us. Then finally, we broke one [for a touchdown].”
Illinois added another score with less than a minute left in the game, but it made no difference, as the Tar Heels wrapped up what was by far, their most impressive performance of the young season.
The Tar Heels stay home yet again, as they conclude a three-game home stand with a game against the Delaware Blue Hens next Saturday at Kenan Stadium.