By Lee Pace
The semi-annual trip into the hills of central Virginia began Wednesday night with a stopover at Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, where the football team there has a 60-year-old linebackers coach named Carl Torbush and a 28-year-old quarterbacks coach named Joe Dailey. The former, of course, was defensive coordinator at Carolina for a decade during the Mack Brown era and head coach for three seasons after Brown left for Texas, and the latter transferred from Nebraska to Carolina in 2005 and spent the 2006-07 seasons playing quarterback and receiver for the Tar Heels before going into the coaching profession.
Torbush has made a full recovery from the prostate cancer scare that prompted his leaving the Kansas staff in May 2011. He still sports a salt-and-pepper mustache, still clips fast-food coupons, still runs three miles a day and can still annihilate a buffet line. After two decades in the pressure cooker of big-time football at Carolina, Alabama and Texas A&M, he thoroughly enjoys working under Flames head coach Turner Gill and the essence of coaching kids who play for the love of the game without being blinded 24/7 by the lure of NFL riches.
"I took a year off to get well, but I'm here now because of Turner," Torbush says. "I said I didn't want to be the coordinator, I just wanted to coach linebackers. Turner's a terrific coach and a better man. This is a comfortable environment and a great situation. I'm having fun. There's a lot to be said for that at 60."
Not long ago Torbush pulled out one of his most prized pieces of coaching memorabilia to show to his fellow Flames coaches and linebackers-a tape of a position drill from 1993 in Chapel Hill, the season when Bernardo Harris, Ray Jacobs, Rick Steinbacher, Kerry Mock, Eddie Mason, Mike Morton and Oscar Sturgis topped the depth chart, James Hamilton was a red-shirt freshman and Brian Simmons and Kivuusuma Mays were raw incoming recruits.
"Ten out of 11 players in that drill played in the NFL," Torbush says. "Can you imagine that? The only one who didn't was Steiny-but he was never in the wrong place and he'd take your head off. That was a special time, that was a special group of players."
One hour up Hwy. 29 twenty-four hours later, the Tar Heels woke up some echoes of happy times from long ago. On the same Thursday night ESPN stage in Virginia's Scott Stadium that in 2006 saw a flaccid Tar Heel squad drop a 23-0 decision to Virginia, prompting the termination of John Bunting as head coach, the Tar Heels delivered a workmanlike performance on both sides of the football and whipped the Cavaliers 37-13.
Bryn Renner hit 29-of-36 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions and engineered a 97-yard third-quarter touchdown drive that allowed the Tar Heels to seize momentum and ramp into a second-half landslide.
Quinshad Davis caught 16 passes for 178 yards, each a single-game school record for a freshman.
Tight end Jack Tabb started for Eric Ebron, who didn't make the trip because of injury, and caught four passes for 45 yards and provided excellent blocking support on the edge and downfield.
Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams had one sack and two tackles-for-loss and anchored the stoutest defensive front performance of the season.
Safety Tre Boston had nine solo tackles and a pick-six in the second quarter, deftly reading the eyes of Cavalier quarterback Mike Rocco, snaring the ball and returning it 36 yards to the end zone.
And the Carolina defense made considerable recompense as a unit for its abysmal performance the week earlier against Georgia Tech. It had two goal-line stands, one a crucial stop in the third quarter when the outcome was much in doubt, and gave up only one touchdown, that a mini-Hail Mary when Cavalier QB Phillip Sims was running for his life and threw across the field into no-man's land, where Darius Jennings caught the ball in the end zone.
"I was happy to see our guys play with emotion," co-defensive coordinator Vic Koenning says. "It's tough when you get embarrassed like we obviously were from the Georgia Tech game. We're still short-handed and we're not built to whip someone one-on-one, play-after-play. We picked our spots to bring some pressure, we played some guerrilla warfare. It worked out tonight. Believe me, it was a Godsend after what we've been through."
"Our kids have some pride," adds co-coordinator Dan Disch. "They wanted to redeem themselves. They played really hard. We got some pressure on the quarterback-we had four sacks-and that's always the key. If he can't develop a rhythm and can't get his feet set, you've got a chance."
This is now the first time the Tar Heels have beaten Virginia three straight since that 1974-82 string where they ripped off nine straight and 13 of 14. That three decade losing skid in Charlottesville has now turned into two straight wins-by a combined score of 81-23. It's also the first time since 1945 the Tar Heels have beaten Virginia and Virginia Tech in the same year in the regular season, meaning they have not done so since Virginia Tech entered the ACC in 2004.
Football seasons and games can be fragile entities, prone to turn on a dime, and a team with as a tender psyche as this Carolina squad had after last week's 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech could have been ripe for a quick knock-out punch at any point. Though the Tar Heels led 20-10 at halftime, the Cavaliers and their fans got a boost early in the second half when Giovani Bernard fumbled a punt and Virginia recovered at the Carolina 12. A quick strike sending Wahoo fans into delirium could have been the death knell for the Tar Heels. But Williams stormed up the middle on second down, sacked Rocco and ruined the touchdown threat, forcing Virginia to settle for a field goal.
"Sly is healthier now and is playing better," Koenning says. "One great player playing really well can make a difference. Sly is playing tough right now. That's a huge difference. Look at the offense, at what happened when Gio missed a couple of games. They missed Gio."
The defense then thwarted Virginia inside the five on three snaps on the Cavaliers' next possession. Cavaliers coach Mike London decided to gamble on fourth-and-one instead of kicking a field goal, and Koenning correctly anticipated an inside running play and called a defense that's a derivative of the old "7-Diamond" formation, where you use a jumbo personnel package, have the interior linemen submarine the offensive front, crash the ends into the middle and have the linebackers clean up the gaps. It worked perfectly, with end Kareem Martin pinching tailback Kevin Parks from the side behind the line of scrimmage and linebackers Kevin Reddick and Curtis Campbell standing him up from head-on. Parks lost two yards, Carolina took over and proceeded to quick-tempo its way on a 12-play, 97-yard touchdown drive.
What could have been a tie score at 20-all if Virginia converted on fourth down was now a 27-13 Tar Heel lead. The Georgia Tech game turned in the blink of an eye during the third quarter a week ago. Carolina held off Virginia at the same juncture Thursday night. Sometimes, it's as simple as that.
"You remember the scene in The Deer Hunter where he chambers the bullet and puts the gun to his head?" Koenning says. "If they'd run the ball on the outside on fourth down, maybe the bullet fires and it's a walk-in. If they run a sneak or a dive, we're okay. I thought that call gave us the best chance."
Watching it all 70 miles to the southwest in his Lynchburg home was Joe Dailey, who invited the Flames' quarterbacks for dinner and to watch the game on ESPN.
"It was fun to watch," Dailey says. "Carolina does a phenomenal job of getting the ball to the perimeter and into the hands of the skill guys. The way they throw those bubbles, the way the receivers block on the perimeter, what they can do after the catch-all of that is huge. Bryn does a solid job putting the ball in the right spots, letting those guys catch it and run. And then you have Giovani-you have to respect him in the run and the pass. It's like Carolina has this three-headed monster – the receivers, the quarterback, and Giovani. Any defense will have its hands full."
Dailey keeps close tabs on the Tar Heels via the internet and wonders what Carolina receivers of his era – Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster, for example– might have accomplished in Carolina's up-tempo spread offense, not that they were slouches in Frank Cignetti's West Coast system in 2006 or John Shoop's pro-style attack in 2007-08. Regardless, Dailey regaled in the victory and felt a little of the sting slip away from that debacle in Charlottesville six year earlier-zero points and 182 yards of offense with Dailey as the starting quarterback.
"That was sweet-redemption for 2006," Dailey says.
Three straight wins over Virginia and a sweep of the Old Dominion in 2012. Not a bad sales pitch for seven Tar Heel assistant coaches leaving Charlottesville to spend the next two days recruiting from Maryland to Ohio to Charlotte and trying to build a talent base equal to those 1993 linebackers.
Lee Pace (email@example.com) has written "Extra Points" since 1990 and has reported from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network since 2004.