by Lee Pace, GoHeels.com
The Tar Heels secured an enormously satisfying 27-19 win Saturday over NC State at Carter-Finley Stadium, the afternoon being marked by tension, noise, momentum shifts, smack talk, rigid hits and cartons of adhesive tape and smelling salts. What also struck me watching from the sidelines was the slideshow of flashbacks that started early and continued throughout the afternoon.
There was a gadget play on a kick—shades of 1981.
Monte Kiffin's second Wolfpack team bolted to a 4-1 record to start the season and led 10-0 over the fourth-ranked Tar Heels at halftime in Raleigh. Noticing a tendency of the Tar Heels' front-line blockers on the kick-off return unit to drop back quickly to their landmarks, Kiffin called for an onside kick to open the second half. But Bill Lippincott saw the ball dribbling his way, fell on it and Carolina took over at midfield. The Tar Heels scored their first touchdown moments later, the momentum shifted and Carolina collected a 21-10 victory.
First-year Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren similarly saw something in Carolina's aggressive punt-rush personality last week that he thought he could exploit, and late in the first quarter from the Wolfpack 30 yard-line, he called for a snap to the personal protector and a fake punt. But Des Lawrence and Ryan Mangum sniffed it out perfectly and nailed Robert Caldwell for a one-yard loss. The Tar Heels drove 29 yards in four plays for the go-ahead touchdown.
"We finally got a game-changing play in special teams," said Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora, whose special teams zeal has been tempered and frustrated this year by lack of a big return or punt block. "We stopped the fake punt, went in and scored and that was huge for us."
There was a double-pass for a touchdown—shades of 2007.
Bobby Rome was a high school quarterback who'd evolved into a sturdy blocking fullback by his senior season in 2007. Carolina was scratching its way back from an early 17-0 deficit midway through the third quarter in Raleigh when quarterback T.J. Yates handed off to Rome, who feigned a running play, pulled back and nailed Brandon Tate downfield for a 50-yard touchdown. Alas, it wasn't enough as the Tar Heels dropped a 31-27 decision in the first of five straight defeats to State.
In August this year the Tar Heel coaches began informal auditions of wide receivers and their arm strengths and throwing abilities, and Quinshad Davis and Ryan Switzer among them showed an ability to sling it pretty good. So trick plays have evolved this season with Davis throwing to T.J. Thorpe for a 32-yard score against East Carolina and a second one Saturday midway through the second quarter that resulted in a 59-yard pass from Switzer to Davis.
Pegged "Rodeo" in the Tar Heel playbook, the play called for Switzer, aligned on the left, to go in motion to the right, collect a backward screen pass on the right and act as if he's going to run hard on the edge, with Davis executing a stalk block on the cornerback downfield. Carolina had run that very play against Boston College a week earlier and knew it would be processed this week in State's defensive game planning. Switzer pulled up two steps after catching the ball, saw the cornerback had stepped in to defend the run and lofted the ball downfield to Davis, who had released and was scot-free at the 30 yard-line and raced in for a lead the Tar Heels would never lose.
"I told him it was a noodle, but it was a touchdown," quarterback Marquise Williams said. "Noodle? I mean, it was a little wobbly. But Ryan is unbelievable. I was happy for him. The guy may be small, but he plays like he's 6-5. He's just one of those guys you can believe in."
Told that Quise was disrespecting his throwing abilities, Switzer just grinned and rolled his eyes.
"Hey, I don't get to take a thousand practice throws in pre-game and over on the sidelines," he said. "When they called it, I just tried to do my best. Quinshad made me look good, he went and brought it in. In the end, it went for a touchdown, so that's all that matters."
There were Tar Heel receivers elevating for catches—shades of the 1990s.
Carolina was blessed during its seven-year domination of the Wolfpack from 1993-99 with a deep reservoir of tall, rangy receivers who could levitate over the middle and in the corner of the end zone, witness the run of Corey Holliday, Bucky Brooks, Octavus Barnes, L.C. Stevens and Na Brown, the latter of whom snared a 14-yard pass from Oscar Davenport in overtime to give the Heels a 37-34 win in Charlotte in the season-finale in 1998.
Now comes a new corps of receivers, including the sophomore Davis and the freshman Bug Howard, each of whom has size at 6-foot-4, svelte hands and an innate ability to time their jumps and manage their feet inbounds. Davis caught a fade route in the corner of the end zone Saturday when he spun 180 degrees, leaped over Jack Tocho and reeled the ball in while touching in-bounds. Later Howard set up a touchdown with a 24-yard reception along the State sideline when he looked to be pinned to the boundary by Juston Burris, slipped inside and underneath Burris and soared at the proper millisecond to rake in the pass.
"That's a major focus in recruiting—6-4, 6-5 guys who can elevate to the ball," offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. "You recruit that ability and then you refine it in practice."
"You look for taller guys who have that basketball skill to go up and rebound the ball and take it away from someone, guys who can play the ball in the air," adds receivers coach Gunter Brewer. "Those are the kind of explosive plays we've got to have right now without having an explosive running game."
There was a two-quarterback system for the Tar Heels—shades of 1993 and 2001.
Mike Thomas and Jason Stanicek were sharing the QB duties when Mack Brown's sixth team came to Carter-Finley Stadium in 1993 looking to end a five-year State winning string, and Ronald Curry and Darian Durant were battling for the starter's job under center in 2001 when John Bunting's first team visited Raleigh. Thomas was hurt on the opening series in '93, so Stanicek played the entire game as Carolina erupted to a 35-14 win, nimbly running the option with the Johnson & Johnson twins and hitting 12 passes downfield for 96 yards. Eight years later, Durant hit 10-of-14 passes and rushed for 46 yards and Curry hit 7-of-15 passes and ran for 12 yards as the Tar Heels slipped out with a 17-9 win.
This year it's senior Bryn Renner as the starter with sophomore Marquise Williams supplementing the position. Saturday Williams provided a needed spark on the third series after State bolted to a 10-0 lead, the first seven points set up on an interception deep on Carolina's side of midfield. Both quarterbacks were jarred to the sideline on Saturday with the Carolina medical staff spending considerable time attending to their prone bodies, but each responded to treatment, shook off their respective ailments and returned to action. Their resiliency and the similar toughness shown by Eric Ebron, Norkeithus Otis and Tre Boston, among others, to return from injuries underlined the resolve of this team.
"It was just a little stinger, but I had to come back," Williams said. "It's a physical game. You're going to have bumps and bruises. But all of us had to come back and finish the game for each other."
"Everyone's going to be beat up tomorrow, that's for sure," tackle James Hurst added. "But that's the nature of this game. We had a lot of guys go out and we had penalties, but we came back and we didn't blink. That speaks to the attitude of our guys. It's a big rivalry game and no one wants to miss any snaps. That was mindset today and we came out on top. No one on our team has won over here, so this is huge."
And there was some post-game celebrating on the opponent's midfield logo and requisite ruffled feelings afterward—shades of 2000.
When the Wolfpack under first-year coach Chuck Amato ended its seven-year losing skein, State's players gathered en masse on Kenan Stadium's interlocking NC logo at midfield. There was a little shoving and shouting but no one was any worse for the wear. "Give us a break," Wolfpack safety Adrian Wilson said. "We haven't celebrated this hard in eight years."
On Saturday a handful of Tar Heels slapped State's new midfield decoration that featured its "Strutting Wolf" mascot emblazoned over an outline of the state of North Carolina-an identical presentation to East Carolina's Pirate at midfield at Dowdy-Ficklen-while yelling "Our state!" in the victory glow. That followed a modest amount of game-week back-and-forth precipitated by some tweets and media comments from Eric Ebron and left Doeren saying he'd remember the Tar Heels' manners for 365 days.
Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora was careful all week not to get suckered by the media into their trap, but he did say after the win, "As far as I know, it's always been the Tar Heel state and always will be."
"It's very sweet," Williams said. "My best friend was talking junk all week on Twitter. There was a lot of hype. We had to back it up. Ebron was talking some junk this week. But they can't say it's 'our state' because we've beaten them back-to-back."
Some years down the road, I'm sure I'll flashback to the image of Marquise Williams throwing a touchdown pass, bolting to the sideline and holding a single finger to his mouth, making a ssshhing motion to the boisterous Wolfpack fans.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.