In the span of eighteen seconds in the second quarter Saturday, Carolina gave up a pair of touchdowns to allow Maryland to take a seven-point lead into halftime. The Tar Heels had scored the game's first 14 points in the first three minutes, only to see Maryland, led by a true freshman, fifth-string (linebacker turned) quarterback, claw right back.
Addressing his teammates at halftime, senior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams let it be known that he had no intention of returning to the locker room after the game with a loss. “I told the guys, we’re going to go out there and give it everything we’ve got for two quarters, and I promise you we will win this game. That’s all I said,” he said. “I looked around and I saw everybody just shaking their heads, like ‘You know it.’ They were ready to go.”
Such was Williams’ confidence that even when Maryland’s Stefon Diggs returned the second half kickoff for a touchdown, digging the Tar Heels’ hole deeper still, he was unshaken. “I knew we were a better football team, and I knew all we had to do was calm down and play with a lot of energy and we were going to win that game, so when they came back and ran that kickoff back, I just started laughing. I ran out there and played the field goal block, and I just started laughing, because I knew.”
Williams was right. Just 33 seconds after Diggs’ touchdown, Carolina answered with a 50-yard Quinshad Davis score. The Tar Heels reeled off 24 straight points and held Maryland to a single field goal the rest of the way.
Saturday’s football game was one last bout with adversity that the 2012 Tar Heels overcame. The eight wins, tied for the team’s total in 15 years, and the 5-3 ACC record should have put Carolina in the ACC championship game. But with the one-year postseason band handed down in March, it’s not to be. It could drive you crazy, if you let it. Carolina could have played for its sixth conference title, and first in 32 years. The Tar Heels won’t even hang a Coastal Division banner, as the ACC declared weeks ago that Carolina wouldn’t be able to call itself division champions. It could get on your last nerve.
With no championship banner to hang, no bowl game to look forward to, nothing to play for, it would have been easy to pack it in and write off the 2012 season. It doesn’t mean anything, does it?
It does. Carolina’s seniors could have packed up their Tar Heel gear and moved on to a team with a chance at postseason play, but they didn’t.
It means something to Williams, who knew four position coaches and three head coaches in two short years on campus.
It means something to Kevin Reddick, who was a defensive leader from the moment he stepped on campus in January 2009.
It means something to Devon Ramsay, who came back from permanent ineligibility and a devastating knee injury to wear a Carolina jersey.
It means something to Erik Highsmith, who compartmentalized his emotions and recorded a pair of catches and a touchdown. “It was emotional. I’ve been through a lot these last four years, and just seeing this day come, I never thought it would be here, but it’s here,” Highsmith said. “You play with the thought, ‘This is my last game,’ but you also want to go out there and win and end on a good note.”
It means something to Jonathan Cooper, who considered jumping to the NFL, but returned to become an Outland Trophy finalist. In the moments following his final college football game, Cooper lingered on the Kenan Stadium field. As the appreciative fans serenaded him with his nickname, “Coooop,” the Tar Heel guard shared a hug with James Hurst, his neighbor to the left for three years on the Carolina offensive line, and former walk-on Peyton Jenest. “(It was) bittersweet,” Cooper said of the emotions in that moment. “Happy to win the game, but sad that that was my last game in that Carolina blue uniform, and in Kenan Stadium.”
Back in March, the Tar Heels knew that the 12 games on their schedule this fall would be the only games they’d play. They accepted that and set goals that were within their reach, such as finishing atop the ACC’s Coastal Division.
So even though there will be no official recognition, the accomplishment means something to Larry Fedora, who was handed a punishment he didn’t earn and led a group of men that he largely didn’t recruit. “That was our number one goal this year, to win the Coastal Division championship,” Fedora said after the game. “This senior class, they led this team to a Coastal Division championship. I can’t say enough about what they’ve done for this program and for this university. It means everything to us.”
Sunday morning, Fedora will meet with the 2012 Tar Heels for the last time. Some of those senior class will never wear another football uniform. Some will hear their names called early in April’s NFL Draft. All will be Tar Heels for life.
One Tar Heel who will return is quarterback Bryn Renner, who will get one more chance to chase a championship. But no matter what happens in 2013, Renner knows that the lessons from this season will endure. “That means more than a ring,” Renner said of the perseverance of the 2012 Tar Heels. “It means more than anything. That’s what I’m going to take away. We’ll have memories for a lifetime with this team, and going to the Coastal Division title would mean a lot, but the memories that we made and the adversity that we overcame is going to mean a lot more.”
Follow the THM staff on Twitter.