There was a time when defeating Miami seemed like a dream victory for North Carolina, given the Hurricanes' history of winning national championships since the early 1980s.
But on Saturday the Tar Heels looked equal to or superior to the Hurricanes athletically and schematically in defeating their Atlantic Division competitor from the ACC 18-14.
Had UNC not hurt is its own cause with penalties, missed field goals and a big turnover in the red zone, Carolina could have blown the Hurricanes off their home field.
"It wasn't pretty, but I will tell you it was a win," first-year coach [db]Larry Fedora[/db] said. "And it was a win on the road in the conference. They were leading the conference so I'm proud of the way these guys played and overcame adversity the whole game.
"We created a lot of that adversity for ourselves," an elated Fedora said. "It doesn't matter. If you are not careful, that will get you down. Someone's head will go down and you will give up plays. I thought our guys fought the entire game."
The Tar Heels maintained its poise under duress. Who created the duress does not matter. What is important is the team held its confidence, its poise and continued to make positive plays to overcome whatever it had to overcome.
"Nobody was on anybody," Fedora said. "Every time we called a timeout, the whole team was going out there and encouraging the unit that was out there on the field. There are some really good things happening with this team."
The victory improved the Tar Heels to 5-2 overall, 2-1 in the ACC, gives Miami its third loss overall (4-3 and first in the league at 3-1). With Duke losing to Virginia Tech on Saturday, UNC is now tied in the loss column for first place in the Atlantic Division.
The league has said because of UNC's NCAA probation, which forbids postseason participation, the Tar Heels are not eligible to win the Atlantic Division championships.
Fedora has made it clear he could care less about that policy. This team will claim the title if the Tar Heels can finish atop the division.
Although the Tar Heels are grasping the finer points of the new schemes, there remains plenty of room for improvement if they want to get that unofficial title.
For the second consecutive week, UNC committed an inordinate number of penalties. A holding call led to a [db]Romar Morris[/db] touchdown being called back, and while a defensive pass interference call on [db]Gene Anderson[/db] prompted a [db]Tre Boston[/db] interception being nullified.
For the second straight week, UNC committed 15 penalties. This time the Tar Heels had 140 yards in losses.
"We're trying to see how many we can get in a game," Fedora said, sarcastically. "We obviously haven't reached the pinnacle yet.
"We've got to do a much better job. It's not that guys are not giving effort. There is a lot of effort. Some of those holding calls are what they are. Guys are fighting their butts off, and trying to finish blocks. We're just getting calls, so we have to do a better job of it.
Fortunately for UNC, Carolina played through the mistakes. The Tar Heels moved the ball freely and executed its game plan on defense by keeping the Hurricanes from completing deep passes. UNC also made plenty of critical plays at crucial times to hold Miami to 14 points.
Miami had scored more than 40 points in each of first three ACC games.
"The difference in the game is we made them throw the ball underneath us," Fedora said. "We gave up some passes because we were not going to let them get behind us, but we didn't give up the big play. And that was they key.
Four key elements to the outcomes of this game were the performances of running back [db]Giovani Bernard[/db], quarterback [db]Bryn Renner[/db], a surprising call to go for a two-point conversion after UNC's second touchdown and UNC's defense knocking Miami quarterback [db]Stephen Morris[/db] out of the game late and forcing the Hurricanes to try to win with a backup.
On the extra-point conversion, the blockers for the kick lined up to the right of the ball as they often will. Two receivers lined up to the far left. The deep snapper unexpectedly snapped the ball to punter and holder for place-kicks, Tommy Hibbard, who threw the ball to the ball to tight end [db]Eric Ebron[/db]. Ebron dashed into the end zone for two points. Those two points meant on Miami's last possession of the game, the Hurricanes trailed by four points instead of three, so they would need to score a touchdown to win the game.
They did not have option of kicking a field goal and forcing overtime.
Bernard finished with 177 yards rushing and two touchdowns. He also had 4 catches for 36 yards, and he returned punts. He finished with 239 yards of all-purpose yardage.
"Gio is a complete back," Fedora said. "He can block. He can catch. He can run. And he is a great teammate."
Bernard and Renner connected on the biggest play of the game, too. On a crucial fourth down, Renner beat the pass rush to lob the ball to Bernard in the flat. He leapt into the air, caught the ball, hit the ground and rolled. He also gained the first down. Then he scored on a run a 17-yard on the next play, followed by the two-point conversion.
Renner threw the interception to stop one potential scoring drive, but otherwise he did an outstanding job delivering the ball time and again and running the offense in the fashion in which the coaching staff wants.
He completed 25 of 40 throws for 214 yards passing. Fifteen of his throws went for first downs.