From 1-5 to 7-6 with a bowl victory—not a bad way to generate some momentum going into the heart of the recruiting season, spring practice and the 2014 campaign.
“I really like the direction this program is headed,” Larry Fedora said Saturday night. “We’ve got a lot of good times ahead.”
“It was a great way to finish the season,” added senior defensive end Kareem Martin. “We’ve got a lot of great young players in the program, particularly on offense. It will fun to watch this team the next few years.”
Fedora had just watched his Tar Heels pummel Cincinnati 39-17 in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte to put the cherry on top of a remarkable back half of the season rally. Carolina won five of its last six games in the regular season and then was dominant against a solid Bearcat team that had compiled a 9-3 mark.
The blueprint was similar to what had worked throughout November: balanced offense, opportunistic defense and big plays in the kicking game.
“I wouldn’t say we played our best game, but we just kept fighting and making plays,” Fedora said. “We made game-changing plays on special teams. Our defense got after them really hard in the first half and put a whole lot of pressure on the quarterback. The offense sputtered around some, but it was good enough to get the job done.”
The defense played six and seven defensive backs the entire game given injury and personnel issues that either limited or totally sidelined Jeff Schoettmer, Travis Hughes and Darius Lipford. Safety Tre Boston played a hybrid weakside linebacker/nickel position conceived specifically for this game and Cincinnati’s spread offense.
Carolina nailed Bearcat QB Brendon Kay with sacks on each of Cincinnati’s first three possessions, helping stake the Heels to a commanding 16-0 lead. Then when the Bearcats made a run in the second half, the defense girded up and stopped them inside the 10 after they’d recovered a fumble on a kick-off return.
“That stop was crucial, crucial,” cornerback Jabari Price said. “We felt momentum swinging their way and we needed somebody to make a play. The defense had to make a stop. We didn’t flinch, we made the stop and turned the game around.”
Fedora's message to his team and the Carolina fan base throughout a difficult September and first half of October was that the process would work given time and given the chance to let a number of true freshman find their ballast and gain some confidence. After a painful loss to Miami on a Thursday night ESPN game, the Heels stabilized and went on nice run the second half of the year.
“We stayed positive through the whole thing,” Fedora said. “The staff did a tremendous job, the seniors did a great job of being the glue that held it all together. You have 125 kids in that room, and if they start listening to everything on the outside, they’ll hear plenty of reasons we cannot be successful. They kept believing in each other. They found a way to get it done.”