by Lee Pace, GoHeels.com
Thirty-three seconds into Carolina's game against Boston College Saturday afternoon, the Tar Heels received something they'd seen little to nothing of during the first half of the 2013 season—a gift. Pure charity. Opponent largesse. The unforced error. Quarterback Chase Rettig and tailback Andre Williams botched the most elementary and simple of all football elements—the hand-off—and the loose ball was covered by Tar Heel linebacker Jeff Schoettmer.
"A huge play," Schoettmer said. "It really boosted the morale of the whole team."
"That was the play of the game," added end Kareem Martin. "The offense turned it into six points and we had some energy all day that we hadn't had this year."
Indeed, the first half of Carolina's 1-5 season had been an avalanche of big plays surrendered on defense, two Ryan Switzer touchdowns at key junctures of ACC games negated by penalties, the blown lead against Miami and all manner of niggling issues from bad communication on one pre-game coin toss to substitution snafus on both sides of the ball.
"This team simply cannot get a break," head coach Larry Fedora lamented after his team's crushing 27-23 loss to Miami a week earlier amid a kenetic Thursday night environment in Kenan Stadium.
Fortunately, those things have a way of evening out if the sample size is large enough and if you simply stay in the game long enough. Case in point appeared on a sunny but chilly afternoon in Kenan Stadium when the Tar Heels used the jumpstart of that early fumble to turn in their most impressive showing of the year, a thorough 34-10 pounding of the physically stout Eagles from Chestnut Hill. As Fedora said early last week, "We're going to find a way to win football games. It's going to happen." And as he added the aftermath of Saturday's much-needed victory: "Our kids never stopped believing."
Carolina came into the game last in the ACC in rushing defense with 203 yards allowed per game and last in third-down defense with 45 percent conversions given up. That softness against the run would surely be exploited by an Eagle offense that featured a blocking front with five 300-pounders and a sturdy tailback in Williams, who was closing in on 1,000 yards halfway through the season. Worse still for Carolina, it would be completely without one Bandit, Darius Lipford, who didn't dress because of injury, and partially without another Bandit, Norkeithus Otis, who was limited in practice last week and restricted Saturday to passing-down action only. Starting at Bandit and playing most of the game was freshman Mikey Bart, who defensive coordinator Vic Koenning recruited out of Buford, Ga., because of his old-school toughness and smash-mouth persona.
"The Lord looked after us a little bit," Koenning said. "Our hand was forced into playing Mikey, and this game was in his wheelhouse. He did a great job, and Jessie Rogers stepped in and helped as well. Lipford and Otis are more finesse guys, and we needed some physical guys who could stand in there tough against the run."
Carolina quickly turned the opening fumble recovery into a touchdown and moments later, cornerback Tim Scott delivered another harbinger of things to come. On third-and-two, Scott broke on a pass from Rettig to Alex Amidon, timed his arrival perfectly and jarred the ball loose, forcing a punt. Confidence is the mother's milk to any successful athletic endeavor, but no more so than the lonely world of cornerback. Seeing Scott jauntily repair to the sideline with his head held high to a round of shoulder and fanny pats and broad smiles looked to bode well for the rest of the game.
"Tim's play gave us a little spark," Koenning said. "We needed some good stuff to happen early. I didn't have a good sense after warm-ups. We seemed kind of flat. I wouldn't have been surprised if we'd laid an egg. That just goes to show that you never know what's going to happen."
Offensive coordinator Blake Anderson was apprehensive at kick-off as well.
"Coming out of warm-ups, I was concerned about our energy level," he said. "The kids played so hard and were up so high last week against Miami, I was worried how much of that might carry over. I sensed we needed something good to happen early to create a spark. They put the ball on the ground, we fell on it, we scored early and then got a big stop defensively. That lifted everyone up and created some energy on sideline. We needed a good break to go our way, and we finally got one."
From there the momentum was on Carolina's side the rest of the afternoon. Terry Shankle followed with another third-down pass break-up and Jabari Price made a precise tackle of a short pass to force a punt. Martin had two third-down sacks and Bart a fourth-down sack, and Carolina limited BC to 5-of-16 third-down conversions. Carolina gave up only 59 yards though the air and made only one major mistake, that a missed tackle by Tre Boston that sprung Williams on a 56-yard touchdown sprint.
The offense was balanced, had no giveaways and only one penalty, that a false-start flag in the second quarter. Quarterbacks Bryn Renner and Marquise Williams were both productive, Renner hitting 86 percent of his passes and Williams averaging eight yards on seven carries. One of the better offensive series of the year was an 11-play, 90-yard scoring drive at the end of the first half highlighted by a 35-yard screen pass to T.J. Logan precipitated by terrific blocking by Eric Ebron, Landon Turner and Russell Bodine.
And another solid punting day by Tommy Hibbard—including one 76-yard missile—and good kick coverage helped keep the field-position scales tilted toward the Tar Heels. Boston College's average starting field position was its 25, and the Eagles never ran a snap inside the Tar Heel 39 until the game's final minutes.
"It's a happy locker room right now," Renner said. "We've been through a lot, a lot of adversity. We've been battling hard and we're not going to quit now."
Enjoying it all from their block seats in section 131 were 45 members of the 1963 team that tied N.C. State atop the ACC standings, pounded the Wolfpack 31-10 and routed Air Force in the Gator Bowl. They were recognized between the first and second quarters and given a hearty round of applause, and at a golden anniversary dinner Friday night in the Blue Zone, two-time All-ACC running back Ken Willard said, "For one brief, magical moment, we were as good as any team in the country."
Tackle and co-captain Gene Sigmon wondered how much better that team could have been had integration evolved enough in the South in the early sixties to allow players such as Winston-Salem's Carl Eller and Shelby's Bobby Bell, who both played collegiately at Minnesota and later made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to matriculate at Chapel Hill. "National championship, maybe?" he said.
Chris Hanburger, later a stalwart with the Washington Redskins and a 2011 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, joked that his girlfriend wanted to get married in the fall of '63 and Hanburger told her if the Tar Heels made a bowl game, they would tie the knot and use the bowl trip as a honeymoon. So as Hanburger was lining up to snap the ball to holder Sandy Kinney for kicker Max Chapman's game-winning field goal at Duke that would propel the Tar Heels to the Gator Bowl, he admits to having sinister thoughts. "I wondered if I should sail the ball over their heads so I wouldn't have to get married. But seriously, it all turned out great," he said, his wife of 50 years, Evelyn, standing nearby.
Chapman, who would later earn a mint on Wall Street at Kidder, Peabody & Co., and has generously returned large sums to the campus in Chapel Hill, displayed a collegiate acumen for business by taking Hanburger to Durham in the middle of the night and fishing golf balls out of a lake at the Duke Golf Course and returning to sell them at a Franklin Street five-and-dime store. He also talked of spending Gator Bowl week at the opulent Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine-co-owned by none other than Carolina's own William R. Kenan Jr.-and how their opponents from Air Force were relegated to staying on a military base to cut travel expenses.
"I've always thought that's why we won the game so easily," Chapman said of the 35-0 win over the Falcons. "We were rested and had a good week, and all those guys wanted to do was go home."
Frank Gallagher, a tackle who would play eight years in the NFL, was reminded before the game that the upper deck in Kenan Stadium was added just before that 1963 season and that the Tar Heels pummeled the Wolfpack in the dedication game in mid-October.
"It was a beautiful place to play then and it still is today," Gallagher said. "I can still see the ground keepers on their hands and knees, clippers in hand, cutting out the poa annua on the field."
Good memories indeed, made all the sweeter against the backdrop of a landslide win to usher in the homestretch of the season.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (email@example.com) is now in his 24th year writing "Extra Points" and 10th reporting from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network. His unique look at Tar Heel football will appear weekly throughout the fall. Follow him on Twitter @LeePaceTweet.