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North Carolina Tar Heels Face an Uphill Climb

Photo by Ben McKeown/Icon Sportswire)

North Carolina is only halfway through its 12-game regular-season schedule, but the Tar Heels seem to be playing their third season in one.

This latest version of 2015 has 17 votes among “others” to equal No. 29. North Carolina should have No. 23 Duke and  No. 25 Pittsburgh worried about its firepower capable of separating the Tar Heels from what for at least now is a three-team race in the ACC Coastal. North Carolina exploded with 29 points in the second quarter to beat Wake Forest 51-20 Saturday at Kenan Stadium.

Wake Forest, whatever its perception and its soft schedule, was ranked 15th nationally on defense allowing only 17.0 points a game and 368.0 total offense. In addition to North Carolina’s “half-a-hundred” points – that’s what Barry Switzer liked to say about such point totals in his days at Oklahoma – head coach Larry Fedora’s team rolled up 212 yards rushing and 326 passing for a 538 total.

The Tar Heels (5-1, 2-0 Coastal), Duke (5-1, 2-0 Coastal) and Pittsburgh (5-1, 3-0 Coastal) are all playing well as the last three unbeaten teams in the Coastal, but take note that North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams is performing like a playmaker after struggling in his first two parts to 2015. He’s learning to combined explosive plays with game management. Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk and Pittsburgh quarterback Nathan Peterman look more like game managers so far.

Against Wake Forest, Williams finished 14 of 20 for 282 yards passing with touchdown tosses of 57, 4 and 42 yards and a 13-yard TD run.

But it’s not all about throwing the ball at UNC in a spread offense that tends to inflate stats. North Carolina is the only ACC team and one of 12 in the nation to balance its offense with 200 yards rushing and passing. The Tar Heels are scoring 40.5 points a game with 218.5 rushing yards and 263.7 passing.

It’s hard to believe this is the same team that lost its season opener to South Carolina 17-13. That night Williams threw three interceptions, including two in the end zone, and North Carolina didn’t give the ball to running back Elijah Hood in the red zone.

The South Carolina game was North Carolina’s first “discouraging” season. The Tar Heels didn’t look like a team about to improve upon its 6-7 record in 2014. It looked like a team that had turned up the heat on Fedora’s hot seat.
North Carolina’s second season was “desultory.” Yes, the Tar Heels routed North Carolina A&T 53-14, Illinois 48-14 and Delaware 14-14, but they started games slowly against inferior opponents.

The games also didn’t inspire the fan base with 20,000-plus empty seats those Saturdays in 63,000-seat Kenan Stadium. The sluggish part of the season included North Carolina wide receiver Bug Howard posting a Twitter message that sardonically suggested the school schedule North Carolina’s basketball team for a pickup game at halftime to draw more fans.

Against Delaware, Fedora took advantage of Williams getting knocked out of the Delaware game with an injury to insert backup Mitch Tribisky. He completed 17 of 20 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns. That raised quarterback controversy speculation, but Fedora went out of his way to douse that fire in preparation for the Tar Heels’ ACC opener at Georgia Tech.

And that brings us to North Carolina’s “dynamic” third season.

Against Georgia Tech, Williams led the Tar Heels to a win at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta for the first time since 1997. Williams compiled 319 all-purpose yards with three touchdowns.

He ran 15 times for 148 yards for touchdowns of 7 and 27 yards, completed 13 of 24 passes for 134 yards and caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Quinshad Davis for a 31-28 lead early in the fourth quarter. North Carolina won 38-31 after trailing 21-0 with less than five minutes to play in the second quarter.

Williams started slowly against Wake Forest with two interceptions similar to how he had played against the South Carolina, but this time he demonstrated he can snap out of a funk. In addition to his 282 passing yards, he ran for 59 with one touchdown.

Maybe one reason for Williams improvement is better play calling. Against Wake Forest, Hood finished with eight carries for 101 yards and a touchdown. What if North Carolina had fed Hood the ball as part of a rally to beat South Carolina?

The Tar Heels might be unbeaten and perceived as having played one dynamic season instead of three parts to date in 2015. They might be ranked instead of being limited to receiving one vote among “others.”
But either way, North Carolina is part of a three-team race with the teams in question yet to face each other. Circle these dates in the second half of 2015’s regular season:

— Oct. 29 (Thursday night): North Carolina at Pitt.
— Nov. 7: Duke at North Carolina.
— Nov. 14: Pitt at Duke.

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