Four Downs: UNC gets much-needed second win

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — For UNC this week, there was a sense of urgency to get its second win of the season (and first against a BCS-conference team). Yes, the Tar Heels were 1-5 heading into this game against Boston College. And yes, they needed this win against Boston College badly. 

Particularly after a disappointing last-second loss (almost literally) to No. 7 Miami a week ago. Wake Forest nearly upsetting the Hurricanes at home this week just reinforces the point — that win was there for the taking, and it could have changed UNC’s season.

Now, the Tar Heels are scrapping and clawing for bowl eligibility. But they’re happy to take it one step at a time, and a win at a time. 

“It’s definitely something we should try more often,” cornerback Jabari Price said. “Feels great. Guys with a smile on their face instead of their heads down. 

“Like I told the guys Friday, I didn’t want losing to become an okay feeling, like guys just being okay with it. That’s my biggest fear. Instead of that happening, we did the opposite.”

1. The two-quarterback system is … kind of working?

Well, it worked this week, anyway. Rotating senior quarterback Bryn Renner with the more mobile Marquise Williams — sometimes within a series, but usually one will get an entire series. Williams finished 4-of-8 passing for 55 yards and a score and ran for 55 yards and another touchdown. Renner was sacked four times (Williams wasn’t sacked at all) and probably should have gotten rid of the ball on a few of those, but he was 18-of-21 passing for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Neither quarterback turned it over. 

Renner had the first three series (one touchdown, two three-and-outs), then Williams came in and led a 15-play, 81-yard touchdown drive. Renner had the next three series, which were also one touchdown and two punts. And then Williams had a three-and-out, then the two alternated (kind of) on the next two series which were both UNC touchdowns.  

But no one on the outside needs to understand it. The UNC offense was humming along better than it had been in some time, and it’s been like that since Williams and Renner started splitting time. 

“Any time you’re moving the chains, you’re going to have a better rhythm. I’ve got to give both of those quarterbacks some praise as far as how they’re handling that transition between the two,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “A lot of people are going to tell you that you can’t do that, that it’s going to mess with the flow of the game, but they really are doing a great job. It’s a seamless transition between the two. they’re very comfortable with it.”

Renner echoed those sentiments. He’s never expressed doubts about it publicly, and he probably has to know deep down — even as competitive as he is — that behind this young offensive line, a more mobile quarterback being in for a few series isn’t a bad thing. 

“We’ve had offensive success the last two games and we really kind of are feeding off each other’s energy. He brings athleticism to the table and he had some great runs out there today and he can throw the ball as well. For us as an offense to grow and keep scoring points and scoring in the red zone, he’s going to need to be a big factor late in the season,” Renner said.

“I think just adjusting to that process, but I think we both do a great job. If one struggles, then we’re going to pick the other one up. We’ve been really talking about that as a locker room, positive energy and everyone being positive. I think that’s what we do between Marquise and myself.”

2. Hey, red-zone effectiveness by UNC’s offense

UNC was 5-for-5 in the red zone against BC, and all five conversions were for touchdowns. Prior to the BC game, UNC was 17-of-19 in the red zone, but just 10-of-19 in red-zone touchdowns. Penalties, mistakes and missed opportunities  have plagued the UNC offense inside the opponent’s 20-yard line all year long. But not today. 

“Probably a little bit more focus, more concentration and guys taking it upon themselves,” Fedora said. “We talked all week about just find a way, get it done, whatever it is, find a way and I think a lot of guys really got it done tonight.”

UNC was 1-5 at least in part to its miscues in the red zone. It seemed like every time it failed to score a touchdown, it was costly. 

This team was determined not to drop to 1-6, and it knew that it had to take advantage of every chance it got to score points. So the Tar Heels did that.

“We just showed that with hard practice and good coaching, this is what happens,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “We put together drives and we capitalized on our (past) mistakes. We made changes throughout the week. (Boston College) had two weeks to prepare, we only had a week and we came in here and showed that we wanted this more than anybody else did.”

3. The defense is improving

The Tar Heels still don’t have a ton of talent on that side of the ball, but at least it did what it was supposed to do. And they have enough talent that they can be a better defense than they’ve been. But they’ve often been undisciplined and not fundamentally sound. 

The biggest thing they needed to do was eliminate big plays. There was a question about whether they could stop Boston College’s Andre Williams, who entered the game as the leading rusher in the ACC. He finished with 172 yards on 26 carries, but 56 of those came on one carry (which was BC’s only touchdown). 

“Limit the big plays,” UNC senior defensive end Kareem Martin said. “(BC) had the one run early on and we didn’t let that phase us. It was something that happened on our part nothing that they did.”

And that was really the only big play UNC allowed. The longest pass play by the Eagles went for 15 yards, and their quarterbacks completed 11-of-22 passes for 59 yards. 

A big reason is that the UNC defensive line, led by Martin, has been resurgent the last few games. It is finally pressuring opposing quarterbacks, and that’s been crucial to UNC’s secondary being able to make a few more plays. That secondary just isn’t good enough to cover for as long as it was being asked to cover earlier this season. 

“You saw it last week with four interceptions, sacks — it’s so much easier,” Price said. “It’s like a clock going off in our head when the ball’s coming out, when we can break on the ball and make plays and stuff. If that pressure keeps up, I feel like we could win out on the rest of this schedule.”

4. Eric Ebron is fun

One of the best tight ends in the country, if not THE best, Ebron is also one of the best quotes. And he’s been used all over the field in his career, though more from a gimmick-play point of view. He played defensive end for a play against NC State last year, but that was a one-time thing, really. 

But today against BC, he got to try some running back. And it was his idea, by the way.

UNC’s running game has been struggling without Giovani Bernard and multiple offensive linemen now on NFL rosters. So, Ebron had an idea. And he didn’t take it to his offensive coordinator, or even the running backs coach. He took it all the way up the chain to Fedora.

“I brought it right to his front door and let him know this is what I want to do,” Ebron said. “I was begging for carries. I was like, ‘At the goal line, give me the ball. I can do something with it.’ Third and (three), they believed in me. I think I got six,” Ebron said. (He did.)  “So they trust in me.”

But when asked jokingly if he had any interest in playing fullback, he wrinkled his nose. “I don’t wanna be no fullback,” he said. (He has a point. It is a position that’s dying off.)

“It was a little bit about what they were doing defensively,” Fedora said. “We put him back in that turbo set with (tailbacks T.J. Logan and A.J. Blue) back there. Our plans were to go a certain way, but what they were doing defensively was dictating that we go the other way.

“We don’t mind handing the ball to Eric Ebron. He can run with the ball. He’s very capable as a runner. I have no problem with it.”

He’s a game-changer for the Tar Heels, and they need to find ways to get the ball in his hands. He finished with four catches for 67 yards and two carries for seven yards. 

Next position he says he wants to try? Punt or kickoff return. Doubtful that’s in his future, but he can dream. 

As can we all.