By Turner Walston
You've seen this scenario many times before: Your team has the ball deep in their own territory with a timeout, and they need a long drive and a score to extend the game. You've seen it before because Carolina football is your team, and Carolina football knows drama.
The Tar Heels are only in this situation, in a winnable game, because of the tremendous play of the defense. You didn't expect that. Not after Baylor put up 645 yards on the ground against the Tar Heels in last year's Russell Athletic Bowl. Not from the ACC's 12th-best rushing defense. But here we are, because the Carolina defense buckled down and kept the Tar Heels in the game. Stanford had explosive plays, yes, but not many, and while the Carolina offense sputtered in the middle quarters –including a drive that ended with a fumble caused by the umpire– the defense held the Cardinal to three field goals.
They'd then held their ground again on two crucial series. After a face mask penalty gave the Cardinal first and goal at the Tar Heel 1, the defense got three straight stops. Dominquie Green soared to wrap up Bryce Love for no gain. Cayson Collins and Cole Holcomb provided the stop on the next play. On third down, Collins and Dan Mastromatteo sniffed out a pitch and cost the Cardinal four yards. A field goal made the Stanford lead eight; a touchdown would have made it 11 or 12.
Carolina gets the ball back at their own 25, and after two incompletions and a sack, has to punt with two minutes to play. But timeout use and a three and out from the defense means the Tar Heels will have one more chance, with 94 seconds to play, down eight, from their own three. You almost can't believe it, but you can believe it. Because Carolina is your team, and you've seen this scenario many times before. Tennessee in 2010. Wake Forest and Louisville in 2012. Duke in 2013. Virginia in 2014. Virginia Tech and Clemson in 2015. Pitt and Florida State in 2016. You've seen the Tar Heels win in these situations, and you've seen them lose. And so when the game comes down to one final drive, you can believe it.
You want this one for the Tar Heels. You want them to finish their season on a high note after a disappointing November. You want it for the seniors playing their final game in Carolina blue. For Ryan Switzer, who became the Tar Heels all-time leader in receiving yards with a 19-yard score in the first quarter. For T.J. Logan, who though behind Elijah Hood on the depth chart for much of the year, exploded as an all-purpose back. For Bug Howard, who went to work every day and made himself a big target. For Khris Francis, the young man out of Hillside High School who fought back from a torn ACL to get the carries he could get, to return kicks and play on special teams. For Jon Heck and Lucas Crowley, veteran anchors on the offensive line. For Nazair Jones, who'd overcome tremendous odds to even be on a football field again and declared for the NFL Draft as a redshirt junior. For Des Lawrence and Dominquie Green, who'd become leaders in the defensive backfield. For Mikey Bart, whose motor never quit at defensive end. For Nick Weiler, who made himself one of the nation's best kickers, and did what he did at Florida State. For Caleb Peterson and Mack Hollins and John Ferranto, whose careers ended too early due to injuries. This senior class committed to a coaching staff that had its hands tied, to a program that wasn't eligible for a bowl game in 2012. They saw the potential in Chapel Hill, and they helped Carolina football realize that potential. You want it for them.
You want it for you, too, if we're being honest. You've invested, financially, emotionally, in this program, in this team that has fought back from the brink. You're invested because every time they take the field wearing Carolina blue and the interlocking NC on their helmets, these student-athletes represent you. Win or lose, they make you proud. But you want them to win.
If you're me, you want to write a winning column. After losses to NC State and Duke, you want to cap the season with a win over Stanford. You want a happy press conference, smiling student-athletes in postgame interviews. You want to pat these student-athletes on the back and congratulate them on a fine season, or an outstanding career. You're going to do that anyway, but you'd rather they were Sun Bowl champions. And you know there's no cheering in the press box, but there is, maybe just a little, if only internally. You tense up just a little with every incompletion, you exhale with every stop, you pump your fist under the table or quietly shake hands with a sports information director like you did in Tallahassee. You maintain an even-keeled exterior, but yes, you want a win.
And so when the Tar Heels have the ball late, down a score, whether you're in El Paso in the stands, in the press box, or watching at home, you believe it, and you want it for them.
Mitch Trubisky has had an up and down day. He's escaped pressure in the pocket time and time again, for completions and for scrambles. He's also been caught in the backfield, and he's thrown a couple of costly interceptions. But he's Mitch Trubisky, and he's been brilliant in his one season as a starter. If he chooses to enter the NFL Draft, he'll be one of the first quarterbacks off the board. He's Mitch Trubisky, and there's no one you'd rather have the ball.
Trubisky completes a pass to Austin Proehl on the sideline. Proehl was crafty, raising his hands at just the last second for the catch and ducking out of bounds to stop the clock. First down. Trubisky scrambles again, this time for six yards and out of bounds. He hits Proehl for six more, then cocks back and fires to Howard along the right sideline for 44. The Tar Heels are in business.
But then Trubisky's pass to Switzer is broken up. Bug drops one in the corner of the end zone. It's third and 10 at the 28. Of course it is. And then Mitch hits Switz, the friends and former roommates connecting for one final time. Ryan falls into the end zone, but he's down at the one. Of course he is. Loss of one, incompletion, and it's third and goal at the 1. Of course it is. Then, Trubisky gets away from pressure. The receivers scramble just to get open. Trubisky plants his foot at the 20 and fires to Howard, who's right in front of Switzer. Touchdown. 25-23.
The Tar Heels need two, and they call the play for it. Trubisky steps under center and takes the snap. He backs up. He has escaped so many times, but can't muster one more. Sun Bowl MVP Solomon Thomas chases him down in the backfield, effectively ending the game.
It didn't end the way you wanted. Not at all. You want one or two of Trubisky's throws back. You want that missed assignment on defense back. You want that umpire to get out of the way. You want another field goal attempt for Weiler. You want a win. You want momentum for the off-season, a reason to feel good about 2017.
And what you really want is a definitive statement from Carolina football, that they can beat a Stanford, that they deserve to be in the conversation as a team to be reckoned with. You want the 2015 season not to be a fluke, you want a foundation to be built upon. You want a team that can win games played at neutral sites, not one that's lost six such games in a row and 12 of its last 13. You want a team that wins bowl games, when recruits are spending their holidays watching with their families, not one that's lost all but two of its last nine. You want your investment to be rewarded.
With the end of the Sun Bowl, that outstanding senior class departs, passing their torches to the next group, to players like Andre Smith and Austin Proehl and Elijah Hood, and maybe even Jordon Brown, who scored his first career touchdown on Friday.
The 2017 schedule is daunting, with non-conference games against Cal and Notre Dame, and Louisville visiting Chapel Hill from the Atlantic Division. Carolina will play in four hostile environments in conference, in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Blacksburg and Raleigh. The group that returns to campus in the fall will be tested greatly, with a young offensive line, maybe a new quarterback and an opportunity for leaders to step forward both on the defensive front and in the backfield.
There's still momentum from 2015, still great wins to point to from 2016 to build upon. But the road ahead is tough, and the Tar Heels will either capitalize on that momentum and establish themselves, or return to rebuilding. The Tar Heels can be that program to be reckoned with. You want to believe.