Hold up your right hand and close your index finger and thumb to within an inch of each other. That’s how far Carolina is from becoming a very good football team after the Tar Heels’ 27-19 win at N.C. State Saturday.

Though still marred by a few mistakes and too many penalties, the Heels showed so many good signs in winning their second straight game and third of the season – and notching their first victory in Raleigh since 2005 — that it is becoming far easier to envision what Larry Fedora’s finished product will look like.

Carolina spotted State 10 points with an interception and botched reverse deep in its own territory, giving a capacity crowd at sun-baked Carter Finley Stadium reason to believe the Wolfpack could actually win the game. Not so fast, Wolfies, who were to settle for only three more field goals.

Behind an array of offensive weapons and a defense that’s coming on strong, the Tar Heels rallied to take a lead they lost only momentarily and might have extended by two or three touchdowns if they had completed a couple of late drives.

Their first two touchdowns showed their resiliency and that Fedora’s second-year roster is far superior to Dave Doeren’s rookie State team. Sophomore Marquise Williams, the heir apparent on the offense, drove them 75 yards while completing all four of his passes, the last in the corner of the end zone to Quinshad Davis. (Besides hitting 8 for 15, Marquise de Sod also led the team in rushing with 51 yards on 17 carries.)

Doeren foolishly called a fake punt on State’s next possession, and it proved disastrous. Senior starter Bryn Renner returned and deftly dropped a first-down screen pass to freshman Khris Francis, who weaved his way into the end zone before a holding penalty on center Russell Bodine nullified the touchdown. Undeterred, Renner went right back to Eric Ebron over the middle, watched Francis bolt to the 1-yard line and followed blockers in on the next snap.
The Tar Heels led 14-10 behind a toughness they haven’t shown consistently. The offense, which struggled much of this season, was to go over 400 total yards for the 16th time in Fedora’s 20 games wearing light blue (which, by the way, turned a putrid purple after his grape Gatorade bath).

Two State field goals put the Pack ahead before Carolina connected on the prettiest play of the day, a reverse pass from freshman slot back Ryan Switzer to a downfield streaking Davis. The 21-16 halftime lead held up when State could manage only one more field goal and Carolina turned a Tim Scott interception into its final touchdown, an eight-yard burst by freshman bullet back T.J. Logan (his first in college since scoring six times in the state 3-A championship game).

The young defense bent but did not break all afternoon, as newcomers combined with veterans to make one big play after another. Malik Simmons and Travis Hughes nailed quarterback Brandon Mitchell for a loss that kept State out of the end zone, and the Pack’s last threat ended when senior Kareem Martin creamed Mitchell and freshman DB Brian Walker came up with the diving interception.

Hughes led the defense with 12 tackles and five solo stops, and Martin’s eight tackles included three for losses and one sack.

The emergence of young defenders like Walker, Simmons and Dominique Green has actually made veteran DBs Scott, Jabari Price and Tre Boston better because they don’t have to cover as much real estate. Price and Boston (10 tackles each) were both spot on, breaking up passes and downing Tommy Hibbard punts inside the 10-yard line to give State long fields to negotiate with a limited offense.

Suddenly, Carolina is playing multiple freshmen and sophomores and has studs everywhere: from Ebron, the future first-round draft choice who added nine catches to surpass his own UNC single-season receiving record (44); to his successor, 6-4 freshman Bug Howard, who leaped for five receptions; to a stable of racy wide receivers like Davis, to a bevy of multi-purpose backs like Switzer and hard-hitting defenders who are flying around and having fun.

The Tar Heels hurt themselves with eight penalties for 80 yards, and both Renner and Williams were shaken up in the second half. Fortunately, both came back to play and look like they will be ready for Virginia on Homecoming Saturday. Renner remains the starter, but it’s clear that the groom is on with Williams, who is actually more suited to running the Tar Heels’ turbo-charged offense.

The 3-5 Heels are now two games from .500 and are looking like a team that can run the second-half table for a 7-5 record and bowl bid.

Sure, they’d like to have the Miami game back and second trips to the two Techs, but at this point of the season it is what it is. And that’s a football team showing a definite growth spurt toward the kind of program Fedora is building long term.

You can see it with your own eyes, and what nearly 60,000 State fans saw Saturday did not leave them with a good afternoon and comfortable night’s sleep when they finally fled the fairgrounds. Despite their team’s own 3-5 record, they knew there was no comparison.