Photo courtesy Kimberly Rivers
With players reporting to campus Tuesday for training camp, the North Carolina football team is actively trying to forget about 2016 and start anew with fewer pieces and unbridled optimism.
But what’s the fun in leaving the past in the past? The final payoff of an 8-5 season is minimal, but last year was full with unforgettable moments sprinkled throughout a 13-game schedule. So I thought I would very arbitrarily highlight UNC's 13 most defining plays of 2016.
One play per game: from the Tomahawk Chop in Tallahassee, to Bug Howard’s corner catch in Kenan, to Dominquie Green’s interception to end all interceptions. Yes, some games had more than one defining moment, but I was bound by the rules of this arbitrary exercise. Enjoy.
Sept. 3: Georgia, L (33-24)
It’s only fitting that the first challenge for UNC’s historically poor 2015 rush defense -- you know, the one that allowed 645 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in the Russell Athletic Bowl -- would be a former Heisman candidate with a reconstructed left knee. Unsurprisingly, Nick Chubb looked healthy as ever.
Through 32 carries, Chubb ran for 222 yards and three touchdowns against a hapless Tar Heel defense -- including a 55-yarder to sink UNC’s spirits. I would apologize for the low-quality YouTube video, but I think it’s a worthy homage to North Carolina’s shoddy arm-tackling and poor pursuit angles.
Chubb was the first in a long list of backs to gash the Tar Heels: Illinois’ Ke’Shawn Vaughn (116 yards), Pittsburgh’s Quadree Henderson (107 yards), Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (140 yards), Georgia Tech’s Dedrick Mills (132 yards) and Stanford’s Bryce Love (119 yards), to name a few. UNC’s defense showed signs of improvement throughout the year, but not before Chubb tore it apart in a neutral-site opener with the nation watching.
Sept. 10: @Illinois, W (48-23)
After a shaky start to the season under the bright lights in Atlanta, quarterback Mitch Trubisky turned it on a week later at Illinois and flashed what would make him the eventual No. 2 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Trubisky totaled 307 yards and four touchdowns, and he showed his mobility on this 39-yard scamper on UNC’s first scoring drive. Two plays later, he charged across the goal line for his first of five rushing touchdowns on the season.
In a game that was largely irrelevant, maybe the run was equally unimportant. But it was the first sign for Tar Heel fans that Trubisky was a true dual-threat quarterback in a starting role. By season’s end, he was arguably the best the school had ever seen.
Sept. 17: James Madison, W (56-28)
Twenty minutes into UNC’s annual cakewalk against a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) foe, Tar Heels fans were shaking their heads in disbelief. Behind two 1-yard touchdowns runs and a 68-yard passing touchdown, James Madison had UNC on the ropes early in the second quarter in Chapel Hill.
Unleash the long ball.
It’s a strategy that worked to perfection so many times last season: Trubisky unloads an effortless NFL-style bomb to one of his NFL-caliber receivers -- in this case, a 71-yard lob to speedster Mack Hollins. Yes, it’s against James Madison, but it’s beauty nonetheless. Plays like these epitomized everything that was right with UNC’s offense last season.
Honorable mention: Trubisky also hit receiver Ryan Switzer on a gorgeous flea-flicker earlier in the game that was almost unfair to the Dukes.
Sept. 24: Pittsburgh, W (37-36)
Had Nick Weiler not trolled the internet and the entire state of Florida a week later, this would be the defining moment of UNC’s 2016 season.
Nonetheless, it’s still arguably the greatest moment in Kenan Stadium since Gio Bernard’s 2012 punt return touchdown against N.C. State. With two seconds left, trailing by five, Trubisky floated a jump ball to receiver Bug Howard in the right corner of the end zone. With Pittsburgh’s Ryan Lewis draped all over him, Howard pulled in a near one-handed catch for the game-winning score.
Lost in the shuffle is that UNC had to convert three fourth downs on that final 17-play drive, including two highlight catches by Switzer. It’s a drive that seemingly couldn’t be rivaled...
Oct. 1: @Florida State, W (37-35)
...until a week later, when Nick Weiler went from longtime scapegoat to Chapel Hill’s golden child in four seconds.
It took two heads-up plays by Hollins to bring UNC from its own 25-yard line to the Seminoles’ 37-yard line -- setting Weiler up for a 54-yard field goal. He had never hit one longer than 49 yards, and the Seminoles hadn’t lost at home in 22 games.
But he split the uprights before Tomahawk-chopping the stunned Seminole crowd in one of the greatest viral moments in UNC football history.
Oct. 8: Virginia Tech, L (34-3)
And then, the momentum of two once-in-a-generation games came to a grinding halt.
I still contend that without Hurricane Matthew, UNC would have played in the College Football Playoff (come at me). But UNC hosted Virginia Tech and a hurricane on the same afternoon, and it was ugly as it sounds.
Both teams combined for 133 yards through the air -- again, this game was played in a hurricane -- and UNC’s receivers took turns dropping every pass in sight, hampered by strong gusts and torrential downpour.
On Trubisky’s fourth passing attempt of the day, he threw one off balance to Hollins along the left sideline, but it bounced into the hands of Virginia Tech cornerback Greg Stroman. It spelled the end of Trubisky’s streak of 243 straight attempts without an interception, a UNC record. It also spelled the end of the Tar Heels’ realistic chances of repeating as ACC Coastal Division champions.
Oct. 15: @Miami, W (20-13)
Admit it: you forgot about this one.
But how could you? With the Tar Heels up seven at Miami and future NFL quarterback Brad Kaaya poised to engineer a comeback drive, UNC defensive end Malik Carney plowed into Kaaya from his blind side and swatted the ball from his hands. Defensive tackle Jeremiah Clarke -- Carney’s teammate in high school -- bumbled down the field before scooping up the loose ball and putting the nail in Miami’s coffin. For the first time all season, UNC’s defense won the day.
After Virginia Tech a.k.a. Hurricane Matthew effectively derailed the Tar Heels’ season, beating the hurricanes a week later was less of a jolt than it would have been had UNC's conference record been intact. But it still completed the Sunshine State sweep for UNC, which could finally rely on its defense to come through when it counted.
Honorable mention: Remember when Hollins caught that long bomb from Trubisky against James Madison? Or when his heads-up plays set up Weiler’s kick? He suffered a career-ending shoulder injury doing what he loved: torching the secondary on a 49-yard reception. It was an unfortunate way to end Hollins’ career, and UNC’s offense was never the same.
Oct. 22: @Virginia, W (35-14)
After Hollins’ injury at Miami, it only took a week for No. 13 to reach the end zone again.
This time, it was Howard -- he of the Pittsburgh epic -- who donned Hollins’ old number to honor his injured teammate. And in the second quarter at Virginia, Howard looked a little like Hollins on the field, too, hauling in a 40-yard trick play touchdown to give UNC a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
The Cavaliers finished the year 2-10, and I legitimately forgot they played North Carolina last season until I looked it up (oops). But at the time, Howard’s touchdown signaled his emergence as a formidable threat opposite Switzer -- and it suggested that the Tar Heels’ high-flying offense wasn’t dead on arrival without its go-to deep threat.
Nov. 5: Georgia Tech, W (48-20)
Welcome to the club, Elijah Hood.
UNC’s starting running back was conspicuously missing from this list thus far, and not by accident. Through the team’s first seven games, Hood’s only two 100-yard rushing games came against the two worst opponents (James Madison and Virginia) and he had yet to flash the breakout potential that his junior year promised.
Enter the Georgia Tech defense. In the first quarter alone, Hood rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns en route to his best performance of the season: 12 carries for 168 yards and three touchdowns.
(Okay, I cheated; this isn’t really one play, it’s a first-quarter highlight tape. Like the Virginia game, I barely remember this one, anyway.)
Nov. 10: @Duke, L (28-27)
Oh, but you can’t forget Trubisky’s interception at Duke.
Yes, that one. The aimless lob off his back foot to Blue Devil safety Alonzo Saxton II on UNC’s final drive. The sixth interception of Trubisky’s mostly spotless final season. The play that cost UNC a big-time bowl bid and gave Duke its first ACC win of its tumultuous season.
At the time, the Tar Heels were ranked No. 15 and were knocking on the door of a late-season at-large push. But Trubisky’s gut-wrenching mistake with just over a minute to go closed the door on any of that and effectively sucked the life out of North Carolina’s season.
Nov. 19: The Citadel, W (41-7)
After the Duke loss, this game felt like a mere formality. But even The Citadel could provide UNC with a defining moment.
Heading into its game against The Citadel, UNC was the only team in the nation without an interception. It was a statistical anomaly that made no sense given the team’s personnel in the secondary, and it also didn’t particularly matter given the team’s effectiveness against the pass. But it was a strange demerit nonetheless.
That ended early in the second quarter, when the Bulldogs tossed an absolute gimme to Tar Heel safety Dominquie Green. He bobbled and almost dropped it -- how fitting would that be? -- but instead, Green took his team’s first interception to the house to emphatically erase the pick-less streak.
Nov. 25: N.C. State, L (28-21)
Remember that suspect run defense from the beginning of the season? It reared its ugly head in UNC’s final home game of the season.
N.C. State running back Matt Dayes did his best Nick Chubb impression and embarrassed North Carolina’s deflated defense. He only rushed for 104 yards on 26 carries, but he had his way between the tackles -- including early in the second quarter, when he dragged Tar Heel defenders into the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown run.
It was as fitting an end to the regular season as Chubb’s opening performance, with UNC’s aerial siege unable to counter its bend-and-then-break rushing defense.
Dec. 30: Stanford, L (25-23)
And then came the Stanford game in El Paso, Tex., which served as the ultimate microcosm of UNC’s season.
Cardinal running back Bryce Love, a relative no-name from Wake Forest, N.C., ran amok against North Carolina’s beleaguered defense. Trubisky looked excellent at times, but he also threw two interceptions and relied on seven different receivers. And when UNC looked like it was starting to get in a groove, it all came crashing down.
Take the Tar Heels’ final offensive play, a two-point conversion attempt trailing 25-23. They couldn’t run up the middle because Hood was sitting out to prepare for the NFL draft, more absent than he had been during the season. So they sent swiss-army-knife Switzer in motion and ran a play to the strong side, with Trubisky under center.
But UNC’s offensive line -- crippled by injuries to its right side -- allowed star defensive tackle Solomon Thomas a direct line to Trubisky, who couldn’t turn all the mobility in the world into an escape plan. (Coincidentally, Trubisky and Thomas were essentially traded for each other in April’s NFL draft.)
The Tar Heels fell two points short, and UNC’s emotionally tenuous season was over. In reality, this team was probably better than the mediocrity of its 8-5 record, but it could never find the consistency to prove it. Instead, North Carolina reached historic highs and fell to embarrassing lows -- one play at a time.