Heroic Williams deflects credit for UNC’s comeback win

QB Marquise Williams has his fingerprints all over North Carolina's comeback victory over Georgia Tech, accounting for 463 total yards (390 passing) and five touchdowns (one rushing).

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Marquise Williams wasn’t being falsely modest after North Carolina’s 48-43 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday night, saying he couldn’t take any credit for the offense’s performance over the last two weeks — topping 40-plus points each time.

He has tried to do it himself. And he can’t.

Against Virginia Tech, the junior quarterback had 281 of his team’s 323 total yards. He valiantly launched himself into the teeth of that tough Hokie interior defense over and over again, in a vain attempt to get yardage that often wasn’t there.

Receivers were covered, the running backs weren’t able to get anywhere, as the line couldn’t get a ton of push up front. So, Williams took it upon himself.

It ended in an ugly 17-point loss.  

Williams wasn’t perfect in that game, certainly. He hasn’t been perfect in the two games since, which have seen the Tar Heels fall in a close one to a top-10 Notre Dame team on the road and then finally get that elusive win — their first since Sept. 6.

But Williams is as tough, physically and mentally, as they come.

Lesser quarterbacks, lesser players, lesser people, might have withered under the spotlight Williams was under, had been under most of the season, really.

When he was sitting out a few series a game while redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky came in, the losses kept piling up.

Williams has experience with that situation. He led the Tar Heels out of a 1-5 start last year into bowl eligibility, after then-starter Bryn Renner went down.

His reward entering this season was having to surrender a few series to another quarterback each game. Williams hasn’t complained, and he’s gone out of his way to defend any mistakes Trubisky has made.

"He’s been able to pick us up when we’ve been down, the offense," said senior tailback Romar Morris. "Sometimes if we don’t do as well on a certain play or something like that, he’s able to pick us up, be a team captain, be a leader out there on the field for us. He’s been a great motivator."

But he is, still, intensely competitive. And he’s human. So the losses, as they started to amass over the last 45 days or so, were getting to him somewhat.

His teammates saw that it was getting to him. But the other thing they saw from him, both publicaly and privately, was an unwavering belief in his teammates.

"No. No. Not once," sophomore wide receiver Ryan Switzer said. "If your starting quarterback loses belief, then you’re in trouble. But he’s kept a level head about him. He’s kept his positive energy up. Guys feed off that. I know I feed off that.

"It’s been nice to see our starting quarterback have that demeanor and have that confidence when he goes out there. He was the first one to say when (Georgia Tech) scored (with a little over three minutes to go), ‘Whatever. Let’s go down and score again and win the game.’ It’s a big confidence-booster for us."

Two weeks ago in Chapel Hill, Williams limped out to the postgame interview area, battered and bruised from the hits he absorbed from the Virginia Tech defense. Trubisky had come in for two series in that game in the first half that ended in a three-and-out and a pick-six that put the Tar Heels in a 17-3 hole headed into the half.

All he did was defend the throw, defend Trubisky and maintain that he could have done more when he was seemingly the only one who did anything on the offensive side of the ball.

After his breakout game at Notre Dame when he ran for 132 yards, passed for 303 and nearly handed an undefeated Irish squad its first loss of the season — in South Bend, no less — he refused to take credit because the Tar Heels didn’t actually win the game.

It was no moral victory for UNC, either — that loss was their fourth straight and put them at 2-4 on the season.

But on this Saturday, he followed his head coach Larry Fedora at the podium, apart from his teammates, just because the team knew he’d be in high demand for interviews. And they were right. Even as players trickled in for interviews in an adjacent room, almost every reporter stayed put to hear Williams talk.

The 1,000-watt grin never left his face as the words came tumbling out of his mouth faster than Switzer sprinted past a Georgia Tech defender after a double-move for Williams’ second touchdown pass of the game earlier that night.

"He’s a fun person. I don’t know how to explain it, but he’s an upbeat, fun person throughout the day," Morris said. "When we’re doing good, he’s like that and even when we’re doing bad, he tries to pick us up so we can get the motivation, get upbeat on the field so we can all be good together."

Every one of his teammates was unbelievable. Except for himself.

"No. It’s never me. It’s never me. Those guys deserve all the credit," Williams said. "Those guys do it all. It’s not me. I just give them the ball and they do the rest. That’s what I’m hear for. I’m not here to take on all the credit. I praise my guys more than I do myself, and that’s just going to be me for my entire career here."

Fedora praised his quarterback in a way that almost made him sound like a game manager, complimenting his poise and the way that he found his checkdowns, particularly on the last drive.

It felt like Williams had a more spectacular game than that, but looking at it a bit more closely, that’s what he did. He had some explosive plays, of course. But he just kept the chains moving, and that’s what counted.

That’s what he did on the game-winning drive. As he saw Georgia Tech’s DeAndre Smelter sprint past him down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown run, Williams said that his heart sank.

Then he looked up at the clock and saw the time remaining in the game: 3:07. And the Tar Heels had all three timeouts.

Williams, who spent time at the Manning Passing Academy this summer, knew what he had to do. And he had no doubt that he, and his team, would do it.

"This is where the best quarterbacks perform — under pressure, you’re down and nobody’s expecting you to get anything. I felt like we had three timeouts, 3:07, just move the ball down, don’t force anything, check the ball down," Williams said. "As you see, I checked the ball down maybe three or four times. I knew I just had to move it down, move it down, just keep moving the chains."

And he did. It was 12 plays, 75 yards and a touchdown in 2:58, with four first downs along the way. The longest play was 15 yards.

But entering that drive, he felt like this was his moment. It was his time. Even though he gave all the credit to his teammates, he knew that win or lose, he wanted to put it all on him to get it done.

"That’s where the greatest perform. You look at Peyton Manning, they do a two-minute drive, and Tom Brady — I want to be something like that one day in my life," Williams said. "I felt like, ‘Hey, why can’t I do it?’"

That’s part of where Williams’ confidence comes from, and it’s something that gets him in trouble at times, too. Some of the throws he tries to make are at times ill-advised; some of the runs he tries to make and tackles he tries to break result in busted plays and fumbles.

But his energy has been such an asset to this team that has been discouraged for so long now.

"Marquise is a very confident individual. I’m a very confident individual. So when I get low or when anybody else gets low, Marquise’s confidence kind of bumps us up," Switzer said. "He’s balled the past couple of weeks. He’s done his part. And (Saturday), he got some help."

In the past two weeks, Williams has indeed been "balling out." Against two teams that had a combined one loss entering their respective games against the Tar Heels, Williams has completed 62 of 88 passes for 693 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions, adding 34 rushing attempts for 205 yards and two TDs.

"I feel like when Quise is how he is and he’s got a pep in his step — which he’s done even with the losses, which has helped a lot — he’s kind of taken on that leadership role, and guys feed off of it. I know I do," Switzer said. "He’s just growing as a leader each game this season and I feel like he’s hitting his peak now."

The Tar Heels were 10 of 15 on third down and 2-of-2 on fourth. The ball was in Williams’ hands on 16 of those plays, converted 12 for first downs, either through running it or passing it.

On UNC’s game-winning drive, he was 3-of-3 passing for 34 yards and three first downs. In the fourth quarter of the last two games on third/fourth down, he’s 7 of 8 passing for 104 yards with three rushes for 11 yards — and eight first downs.

And all of that was why there was no question in the minds of his teammates that when the Tar Heels got the ball back with 3:07 to go, they were going to score.

With Williams at the helm, the confidence is off the charts and now his teammates are starting to come along with him, their growing confidence each week on the offensive line, at wide receiver, running back — everywhere.

And the offense has to do that, because the defense is having trouble stopping anyone. The Tar Heels have let up 70, 50, 34, 50 and 48 points in the last five games.

It was too big of a burden for the offense to bear at first. But now, with Williams playing as well as he is and other players stepping up, they’re handling it just fine.

"To be honest, we knew we were going to get in the end zone. We’d been saying it all game, each time Georgia Tech scored to our defense, ‘That’s all right.’ They just couldn’t stop it tonight," Switzer said. "We were just in a groove. We had three timeouts left with three minutes. That was cake for us. That’s just how we were feeling."

"That was a good Georgia Tech team. I think they had one loss coming into this game. From an offensive standpoint, that’s two weeks in a row where we’ve spanked teams, really good teams.

"We’ve got to keep the momentum going. It’s in our favor right now offensively and as a team because we got a win, but it’ll be nice to keep it going."