When I moved to North Carolina a year ago, I was surprised to find such avid football fans in Chapel Hill. I knew the team had some success in the past, but I’d never thought of it as a storied program, and I guess I always assumed that basketball consumed the interest of most UNC fans. But I’ll be damned if Tar Heel fans don’t turn out for every home game like their team was in the championship hunt – and if the program’s recent trajectory has been any indication, maybe they will be, soon enough. They’ve certainly been a compelling team this year.
In any case, Chapel Hill turns into a picture-perfect college football town on home-game Saturdays, brimming with tailgaters in Carolina blue sipping pregame cocktails underneath the shade trees. (It’s a scene out of some idyllic, nonexistent past, especially when the temperature hints at fall’s approach, and the clear skies conspire with a mild breeze, as they did Saturday night.)
And when those genteel folks hit the stadium, they raise a respectable ruckus.
Maybe it was all the pregame gin rickeys (or whatever it is that people in golf-visors and sweater vests drink), or just the good year the ‘Heels have had thus far, but the fans were completely geeked by kickoff, making more noise than they have all season.
Kenan Stadium looks strange at night when the stands are filled with fans clad in Carolina blue, like half a giant luminescent blue Easter egg emerging from the turf. Into this dreamlike arena emerged the home team, hoping for another encouraging win, and the visiting University of Connecticut Huskies, ranked 24 in the country, undefeated, and hoping to stay in the hunt for the Big East title, a trophy they shared with West Virginia last year.
The night would retain that pristine, end-of-summer feeling for the next four hours, the only clouds in the sky generated by the fireworks that exploded over the stadium every time the ‘Heels scored on the way to their first win over a ranked opponent since 2005.
Junior QB Cameron Sexton started in place of injured first-stringer TJ Yates, Coach Butch Davis opting for the backup who beat Miami with solid play last weekend over freshman Mike Paulus. Sexton was more than respectable, once again, passing for 56 yards and one interception in the first half, though the stats didn't tell the story of this game.
The game’s other big question mark, UConn backup QB Zach Frazer, would not fare as well.
The ’Heels showed defensive moxie in the half, twice holding the Huskies to field goals despite the best efforts of star tailback Donald Brown, the nation’s leading rusher at 181-yards-per-game, to get into the end zone. They also had two first-half interceptions, bringing their season total to 11, matching their total for the entire last season. One of those interceptions was by safety Trimane Goddard, the player who saved the Miami game by snatching a game winning touchdown reception out of the hands of a Miami receiver as the clock expired. His grab in Saturday’s game was a bit of a save as well, taking the ball out of Husky hands at the end of a long drive when they were inside the UNC 20 yard line.
Special teams were an unexpected boon, chalking up two punt blocks and a punt deflection, all in the first half.
Still, the 17-3 halftime score, while good, didn’t reflect exactly how lopsided this game would become. In fact, none of the numbers told an accurate story. A glance at the end-of-game stat sheet would lead the casual observer to assume that UConn won. In fact, UConn played a pretty good game, but UNC made points out of their every mistake.
Despite a temperature drop and a 20-minute delay when half the stadium lights inexplicably went out, the crowd stayed amped and the team responded with total badassery in the second half. Highlights included tailback Shaun Draughn breaking free for a 39-yard TD off a great block by right tackle Garrett Reynolds, and Frazer, falling to the ground under pressure, inexplicably tossing the ball right into the giant mitts of behemoth defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who chugged into the end zone for another TD to make it 31-6.
Despite more total offensive yardage and a lopsided time-of-possession advantage, UConn couldn't convert those numbers into points. Final score: 38-12.
As the last tuft of smoke from the night's final fireworks drifted over the field, fans lingered in the stands. Little kids in too-big jerseys climbed around on the stadium seats, their parents sitting and watching contentedly even after the players disappeared into the locker room. The student section was still three-quarters full long after game's end, co-eds passing flasks and singing, arms thrown carelessly around each other's shoulders. They all knew that winter is coming and there won’t be many more nights like this.