Until the second half of last week’s game against Virginia Tech, it looked like the Tar Heels had a good season going. Not a national championship season, but the kind of season that can reasonably be called progress, and might even include a shot at having some fun in the ACC title race. Then quarterback TJ Yates went down with a broken ankle, consigned to the sidelines for six weeks.
Even though Yates isn’t on anyone’s Heisman list, the injury was a boot to the groin of UNC’s offense.
Yates is a competent playmaker, able to get the ball into the hands of his potent receiver corps of Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster. The ’Heels’ main back, Greg Little, has been able to slug it out with opposing teams, but they rely on the three receivers for big plays.
It did not bode well that after Yates left the previously close game against Virginia Tech, the defense went to sleep and freshman quarterback Mike Paulus spent the fourth quarter trying to make up for his mistakes, which got increasingly worse. The game was the ’Heels first loss of the season.
But it was going to be Paulus or junior backup Cameron Sexton who would determine whether or not this season was going to stay on its promising course.
Would the ’Heels even be able to make a decent showing against a Miami team trying to return to Championship form? The Hurricanes had a lot of raw talent, with an emphasis on “raw.” Coach Butch Davis let it be known that both backups, Mike Paulus and Sexton, would play in Coral Gables today.
Paulus started the game, picking up right where he left off at the end of last week’s collapse against Virginia Tech. Davis, who apparently was just checking, put Sexton in and left him in for the rest of the game.
And it was a great game.
UNC struggled in the first half, seemingly dazed by Hurricanes’ insane intensity. Canes Coach Randy Shannon has a crew of 23 freshman, 8 of them from Miami’s football powerhouse Northwestern High School.
(Downtown Miami (read: not South Beach) has an obsessive local football culture, and the youth leagues and high schools have been the subject of some good sports writing over the years (notably Robert Andrew Powell’s excellent We Own This Game: A Season in the Adult World of Youth Football.))
Shannon’s young crew was overwhelming early on, knocking helmets off North Carolina heads (seriously, it happened four or five times in the first half alone), pressuring the passer on D and generally beating up the defense. Greg Little was a workhorse, as usual, but he was the only consistent positive. Once again, the ’Heels played hard but made too many mistakes, including the kind of dumb penalties that helped them lose the Virginia Tech game. By halftime the Hurricanes led 17-7.
The ’Heels apparently got tired of being bullied by young’uns, and dragged themselves back into the game on sheer tenacity, combining firceness and poise in a way that makes the rest of the season look like less of an endurance test.
Safety Trimane Goddard was the game’s MVP, with two interceptions, including the game-winning pick in the end zone as the game ended. In fact, the ’Heels had big plays from all three star receivers, backs Little, Ryan Houston, and Shaun Draughn, and the entire defense. But Sexton’s steady hand and two touchdowns were the game's best omen for Tar Heel fans.
(Marve, by the way, appears to have his initials tattooed in four-inch-high script on his triceps , “R” on the left (which could be confusing) and “M” on the right. Could be useful if you’re walking along behind him and thinking, “Geez, what’s that guy’s name again? It’s on the tip of my tongue… If I could just see his initials I’d definitely remember…”)
Sexton drove the field and threw for two touchdowns, all the while trying to evade desperate Miami defenders. Marve had his moments as well—the kid is bold, not hesitating to chuck it downfield to the exact same spot he'd thrown an interception minutes before (maybe he should have his testicles tattooed on his triceps.) Sexton hit Nicks for a 74-yard touchdown with nine minutes left in the game, and threw a beautiful pass to Foster in the corner of the end zone with less than a minute remaining.
If the defense can hold tough in pressure situations like they did for most of the second half, culminating in Goddard’s grab, this team will be competitive. If Sexton can keep his head like he did when he perfectly placed the touchdown pass to a leaping Foster, Tar Heel fans will be in for another good year.