by Adam Lucas, GoHeels.com
The turning point for Mack Brown's Carolina football program can be traced to one of three games-a 13-13 tie with Georgia Tech in 1990, the 21-17 win over Mississippi State in the 1993 Peach Bowl, and a 31-9 demolition of Southern California in Anaheim on this date.
Much like this year's opener at South Carolina, the preseason 20th-ranked Tar Heels were primarily an afterthought (and an eight-point underdog) in the 1993 game. The No. 18 Trojans had hired John Robinson, the program's head coach from 1976-82, to return them to the success they'd experienced under his previous regime, when USC won three Rose Bowls.
Robinson did not inherit a vintage Trojan team, but still, it was Southern Cal, and the game was played in USC's backyard. Carolina was also searching to replace a valuable offensive weapon, as 1,000-yard tailback Natrone Means left early for the NFL after an impressive 1992 season.
Brown found an innovative way to replace Means, as he turned to the speed of Curtis Johnson and the versatility of Leon Johnson (the duo is not related). Leon, a freshman who had the luxury of redshirting because of Means's durability, rushed for 94 yards on 10 carries and caught four passes for 35 yards. Curtis, a sophomore, added 78 yards on 17 carries.
"We had some big plays from our tailbacks, and that was a concern coming in," Brown said.
Leon Johnson got Carolina on the scoreboard first, as his 19-yard touchdown run made it 7-0. After a USC field goal, Curtis Johnson added a three-yard touchdown on a Jason Stanicek pitch. Carolina took the 14-3 lead into the locker room, then burst to a 31-3 advantage by the time fullback William Henderson scored on an eight-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Brown would later transition his offense to a more pass-friendly version steered by quarterback Chris Keldorf, but in the early 1990s, the Tar Heels were still heavily reliant on the option. The win over the Trojans was a great example of how that attack could work when it was clicking, as Carolina piled up 409 yards, including 291 on the ground. Southern Cal's running game wasn't nearly as effective, as they lost starting tailback Dwight McFadden to a broken ankle in the first quarter.
With the victory, Carolina vaulted from 20th in the preseason poll to 16th in the Associated Press rankings. They would finish the 1993 campaign 10-3 and ranked 12th in the country.
Just as importantly, the win--and it was a dominant performance, not just a fluke victory--over a marquee college football program elbowed the Tar Heels into the national discussion. Brown's program had been passed over for bowl bids early in his career there, and even if this Southern Cal team was rebuilding, it was still a way to make sure the national football press was paying attention.
"Hopefully this game will give us national recognition," Brown said. "At North Carolina people talk about tradition and we have trouble getting our name mentioned in that group."
Johnson and Johnson would go on to become one of the most potent offensive tandems of the Brown era, with a combined 5,692 yards between them. Leon still holds the UNC career record for rushing touchdowns (43) and the career all-purpose yardage mark (5,828) while Curtis's career yards-per-rush record of 5.7 yards per carry was broken last year by Giovani Bernard.