Seventeen Tar Heel seniors played their last collegiate games Saturday and moved into the world of football alumni. Since most of them are Lettermen, one of their closest ties will now be with the Carolina Lettermen's Association.
The Tar Heels jumped out on Maryland with 14 quick points, withstood a bizarre stretch at the end of the second quarter and beginning of the third quarter, then ramped up a scoring deluge to defeat Maryland 45-38.
"Bittersweet," senior guard Jonathan Cooper said. "I'm happy to win the game, but sad that that was my last game in that Carolina blue uniform in Kenan Stadium."
"I'm sad it's over, but I'm also excited that I got a chance to play for all these guys and all these coaches," defensive tackle Sylvester Williams added. "Because it's not every day you meet guys that will probably be a part of your life for the rest of your life."
The 2012 season goes into the book as a most memorable one. The Tar Heels finished 8-4 overall and 5-3 in the ACC and finished in a tie for first with Georgia Tech and Miami in the ACC Coastal Division. The three-way tie-breaker would have gone to the Tar Heels had they been eligible to win the championship.
"To be Coastal Division champs, and that's the way we'll look at it, I'm very proud of this football team," Larry Fedora said in wrapping up his first year as the Tar Heels' head coach.
."We may not get a ring or be recognized as champions because of what happened off the field," added QB Bryn Renner. "But we know we earned it on the field."
The Tar Heels beat Virginia and Virginia Tech in the same regular season for the first time since Virginia Tech entered the ACC in 2004. The Heels have now beaten Virginia three years in a row and two games running in their former haunted house of Scott Stadium in Charlottesville. They ended a five-year win streak by N.C. State in dramatic fashion, with Gio Bernard taking a punt return to the house in the last minute of the game. The Tar Heels won at Miami and went 6-1 in Kenan Stadium.
Fueling the victories was a high-powered offense and solid kicking game and occasional dollops of solid play from an undermanned and ultra-thin defense.
Carolina's 5,827 total yards of offense was easily a school record, eclipsing the 5,256 mark of 1993 and the 5,112 yards from 2011.
The Tar Heels averaged nearly 41 points a game, tenth best in the nation, setting a school record and eclipsing the previous best of 35 points a game in 1993.
Renner threw for 3,356 yards and became the first quarterback in Tar Heel history to have back-to-back 3,000-yard-plus seasons. And Bernard ran for 1,228 yards and became the first Tar Heel to post consecutive thousand-yard marks since Natrone Means in 1991-92.
The accomplishments of Renner and Bernard augment the most significant fact exhumed from a thorough parsing of the stats book:
The Tar Heels in 2012 ran the ball 457 times.
They threw it 441 times.
"In normal down-and-distance, we want to be as balanced as we possibly can," says offensive coordinator Blake Anderson. "That's what we're looking for."
The Tar Heels had plenty of big plays in the kicking game, beginning with a blocked punt and forced fumble on a kick-off in the loss at Louisville. Kickers Casey Barth and Tommy Hibbard performed well and the Tar Heels ranked consistently among the ACC leaders in all special-teams categories. Two-point conversions in the first quarters in wins over Miami and State were crucial points. Next year they certainly have to shore up their kick-off coverage, which yielded touchdowns to Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Maryland.
The defensive story hasn't been as promising. Twice the Tar Heels yielded a length-of-the-field, game-winning drive to Wake Forest and Duke, and opponents hit them with scoring missiles of 55, 83, 49 and 66 yards. They allowed 68 points and 588 yards in a miserable performance against Georgia Tech.
The defense was thin on personnel to open the season. Of 12 players inked in 2009 projected to play on defense, only four remain on the team. That's the class that should be the backbone of the 2012 defense--the players who would be true seniors or red-shirted juniors. Add injuries to Williams, Tim Jackson and Sam Smiley that affected their play or completely sidelined them, and coordinators Vic Koenning and Dan Disch were playing numerous walk-ons and freshmen in November.
"We've got to build depth," Disch says. "We need players. We've got to go recruit."