It had been three-hundred and sixty-nine days since Carolina football had beaten a Power Five football team. Last year on November 5, Georgia Tech came to Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heels hung a 48-20 win on them. Who could have known then that Carolina would only beat The Citadel and Old Dominion over the next year and four days?
But it was so. The team lost a boatload of playmakers to the NFL and graduation, including the No. 2 overall draft pick. A pair of 2,000-yard rushers. Six 100-point scorers. The school's all-time leading receiver and punt returner. An All-ACC defensive lineman.
And then the injuries came, and kept coming. To Austin Proehl and Thomas Jackson. To Andre Smith and Toe Grove and Donnie Miles and Tyler Powell and Devin Perry and William Sweet and Carl Tucker and on and on and on and on. What should have been the first step in the next era of Carolina football and Larry Fedora turned into a misstep, a broken ankle, even.
And so it went for Carolina in 2017. A close loss to California. Louisville pulling away late. A win in Norfolk, but then six more losses in a row. Some close, some not. Nothing broke the Tar Heels' way. Fortunately, the fans understood, saw how the deck was stacked against the team from the get-go and sort of wrote off the season. Cheered for the team but forgave the losses given the hand the team was dealt.
Then, finally, a bye week. A too-late, Saturday off after nine games played and a full training camp. They could have folded. They could have mailed in the final three games of the season, a trip to Pitt, a home date with Western Carolina and a season finale in Raleigh. They could have quit, but they didn't. They had what their head coach called the best practice of the season on the Sunday of their return, prepped to go to Pittsburgh in a short week and play their best in prime time.
It wasn't always pretty, and it wasn't a marquee match-up, given that it was two sub -.500 teams, but Carolina walked out of Heinz Field victorious thanks to unlikely performances from unlikely performers. Anthony Ratliff-Williams returned the opening kick back 98 yards for a score. He would score passing the ball and catching it as well. Nathan Elliott started the first game of his college career and threw for 235 yards and two scores. And when they needed to, desperately needed to, the Tar Heel defense stepped up, forcing two straight punts at the most important points of the game to give the offense back the ball and the chance to win. And they did win, by letting Jordon Brown run and run and run out the clock.
Your esteemed columnist has a confession: I didn't see the first half of the game. Any of it. As the PA announcer for volleyball, I was in Carmichael Arena for a 6:30 first serve, and the five-set win over Georgia Tech kept me away from Pittsburgh and away from a television screen. Before 2017, I hadn't missed a regular season football game in nine years. But with the way this season began, and continued, I stayed away. The plan was to watch the game in its entirety on DVR delay, but of course I couldn't resist checking the score.
I watched the second half. Well, almost all of it. My bichon-poodle Quincy rang the bell to go outside right after Pitt scored to begin the third quarter. But I watched the game at peace with whatever happened. Nothing of consequence was really on the line, after all. There would be no bowl trip, after all. Basketball season tips off on Friday, after all.
I don't like feeling that way. I like being invested. I like feeling. And as the game wore on, as I listened to Joey Galloway and Booger McFarland question nearly every play call from both teams, I got invested. I started feeling. I wanted to see the Tar Heels do it, see them finish a game the way that they hadn't all year long. And they did. The guys grew up. The depleted offensive line has finally started to show some moxie. The tackles are being finished. The next generation of playmakers are emerging. And they won. The Tar Heels won.
"This is one game to get over the hump," Fedora told ESPN's Laura Rutledge. "They remember what you do in November, so we're on the right track."
It means nothing in the ACC standings, but it means everything for the future of the program. Because with one win at Pittsburgh, these Tar Heels learned what their coaches knew: that the system works if you trust the process, if you lean on the guy next to you, if you do your job. That it's fun to be in a victorious locker room, and what it takes to give yourself a chance the next time out. Those lessons won't just carry into next week, but they'll go into the off-season, and they'll show up on the practice field next spring.
It's taken time, so much time, but they are indeed on the right track.
Jordon Brown photo at Georgia Tech by Alex Kormann