Carolina’s prolific offense has moved into high gear two of the last three weeks and the defense, though still susceptible to too many big plays, is dealing more 3-and-out stands and tackling better overall. The special teams have added huge plays in back-to-back weeks in defending and executing onside kicks.
The result is a near upset at Notre Dame and consecutive ACC Coastal Division wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia. The Tar Heels are 4-4 heading into the November home stretch and playing significantly better than they were in losing consecutive games to East Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech.
“Our kids kept believing in themselves, in their teammates, in their coaching staff,” Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora says. “It didn’t matter if no one on the outside believed. Within our locker room, they believed. They knew they could be a good football team and they’ve started showing it over the last few weeks.”
Carolina travels to Miami on Saturday for a 12:30 matchup against the dangerous Hurricanes and their all-world tailback Duke Johnson. Then it’s a week off followed by Pittsburgh coming to Kenan Stadium for Homecoming, a Thursday visit to Duke for an ESPN game and then the season finale on the Saturday after Thanksgiving against N.C. State.
One element that has helped Carolina in mid to late October was the return of the right side of the offensive line; both tackle Jon Heck and guard Landon Turner missed two or more games each because of injuries. The line is now more cohesive and productive.
“I’m so grateful to have those guys,” quarterback Marquise Williams says. “If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. People say, ‘Why are you so much of a rusher, why are you the leading rusher?’ It comes from those big dogs up front. They’re unbelievable.”
Some of the young Tar Heels on defense are beginning to emerge, with tackle Nazair Jones having a key interception at Virginia last week on a screen pass and sophomore cornerback Des Lawrence and freshman linebacker Cayson Collins making some notable stops the last two weeks. Junior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer continues to lead the unit with his smart, tough play.
Carolina yielded easy scores to Virginia on the first two series last week in Charlottesville. But after that, the Tar Heels started fitting their gaps better and making more precise tackles. They had three straight 3-and-out stands in the first half; held Virginia to no points after a turnover in Carolina territory in the third quarter; and finished the game with two straight 3-and-out stops late in the game.
“I’ve seen us growing as a team the last two weeks,” Fedora says. “I hear one side of the ball talking to the other, telling them, ‘We’ve got your backs, don’t worry,’ after a bad series. We’re starting to grow up a little. We still have a bunch of young kids. But like we did last year, we’re making some plays we didn’t make early in the year and starting to get some confidence.”