“I guess we answered the question, whether these guys would bounce back or not, and do it in a short week,” Larry Fedora said after Carolina traveled to Charlottesville and beat the Cavaliers, 37-13, in a game they never trailed. The team that had been almost bemused by what happened last week rebounded with just one practice in pads before making a statement on national television. “I think they were hurt by what happened last week, and they’ve got a lot of pride,” Fedora said. “They knew what had to be done. It wasn’t going to be physical at this point in the season, it was going to be mental, and I think our defensive staff did a great job getting those guys back.”
Senior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams said he had a good feeling when the team arrived at Scott Stadium Thursday afternoon. “I could see in everybody’s eyes, the look guys had on their faces,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a good game for us, especially on defense.”
It was. The Tar Heels held Virginia to just two third-down conversions on 15 attempts, sacked the quarterbacks four times, forced a fumble and allowed just two field goals and a single touchdown on the day.
Safety Tre Boston didn’t feel great about his play against the Yellow Jackets. He responded by diving into his playbook and hitting the film room. “Just going back to my roots,” he said. “I played not my best last week, and I know that I played a lot better, and it was just about showing that tonight.”
Immediately after a missed Tar Heel field goal, Boston picked off a Michael Rocco pass and returned it for a score, helping Carolina take a 20-10 lead into halftime.
Offensively, Carolina was paced by quarterback Bryn Renner, who was as sharp as ever, completing 29 of 36 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns. Wideout Quinshad Davis moved the chains, hauling in a freshman-record 16 catches for 178 yards. Fedora said Davis is just scratching the surface of his potential. For his part, Davis said he’d hoped to play at this level during his first season in Chapel Hill. “I didn’t know if I’d do all this that I’m doing,” he said, “but I wanted to come in and make an impact for this team.”
With his record-setting night, Davis also passed teammate Giovani Bernard for receptions in a single season by a freshman. Davis’s 52 catches is seven better than Bernard’s 45 from a year ago. “He’s a great young kid. He’s doing a great job for us this year. We’re expecting big things from him next year as well. He’s done a great job so far.”
Thanks to his spectacular playmaking ability, Bernard has commanded headlines all season long. Virginia seemed to make it a point of emphasis to stop the sophomore, who had just 18 yards rushing at halftime. “That’s part of the game,” he said. “If the run game’s not there, the pass game’s going to be there. If the pass game’s not there, the running game might be there. That was just one of those nights. You’ve just got to work with it. They involved me in the passing game, so I got my touches. It was all I could do.” Bernard finished with 57 yards rushing and 47 through the air.
Tar Heel fans are accustomed to Bernard making the highlight reel, but Thursday, it was the defense that came up with the game changing play.
With Carolina ahead by a touchdown in the third quarter, the Cavaliers drove off of their own 21-yard line after a Tar Heel punt. Michael Rocco methodically led the home team down the field, thanks in part to a 17-yard completion on 3rd and 18 and a fourth down conversion from Kevin Parks. That gave Virginia 1st and goal from the Tar Heel 8. Rocco kept for five yards, giving his team three chances from three yards out. Perry Jones got one, but Parks was stopped on consecutive plays by Curtis Campbell on third down and Kareem Martin and Kevin Reddick on fourth and goal. What would have been the game-tying drive ended up a turnover on downs.
“Man, that was incredible,” Reddick said of the stand. “Guys just ‘bowed up. I was telling the guys, be a man down here, and they did that.” Indeed. When push came to shove, shove won.”The linebackers fit, the safeties fit and everybody just made plays. It was a great stop.”
Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
That great stop propelled the offense, too. After that goal-line stand, Bryn Renner engineered a 97-yard drive that culminated in a 20-yard touchdown pass to Bernard. The Cavaliers had been a yard away from tying the game, and suddenly they were down two scores. The whole sequence took less than five game-minutes. “That was probably the dagger right there,” Fedora said of the swing.
After a Virginia three-and-out, Carolina took great field position and turned it into another score. The home fans headed for the exits as the visitors celebrated. In this most mercurial of seasons, it was almost fitting that the defense that gave up 68 points in a loss to Georgia Tech last weekend would hold Virginia to 13 just five days later.
Thursday night, Carolina had the opportunity to show off their navy pants and blue chrome helmets on national television. They showed too that they can bounce back from adversity with precision passing from Renner, playmaking from Bernard and , and a much-improved defense. The Tar Heels won’t play in a bowl game this year. In fact, they won’t play beyond next Saturday’s home finale with Maryland. But given the chance to step into the national spotlight for a night, they delivered a performance worthy of the stage.
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