Prior to Deondre Francois pulling his best Houdini impression for the go-ahead touchdown with 23 seconds remaining on Saturday evening, there were various reasons to doubt the North Carolina Tar Heels’ ability to leave Tallahassee with a win. Pick one: Florida State’s 22-game home winning streak, Dalvin Cook facing the 118th-ranked rushing defense or North Carolina looking vulnerable the previous week against Pittsburgh.
Then the magic happened — again.
For the second consecutive week, Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels clinched an ACC win in the closing moments, this time with a 54-yard field goal off the foot of Nick Weiler. The kick silenced the crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium, just as Bug Howard’s game-winning catch against Pitt ignited UNC fans a week earlier at Kenan Memorial. Following a season-opening loss to a (disappointing) Georgia team, the Tar Heels suddenly find themselves in the middle of a charmed season with two impressive conference wins in the rearview mirror.
Weiler missed a 51-yarder earlier in the game and had an extra point blocked to leave the door open for Florida State. He originally told Fedora his range was around the 35-yard line. He underestimated himself. “Adrenaline kicks in,” he said.
“Twenty-three seconds doesn’t seem like a lot of time,” North Carolina receiver Ryan Switzer said after the 37-35 win. “But with our tempo and the things that we practice on a consistent basis with two timeouts we felt like we could get into field-goal range and give Nick a chance.
“ … Hats off to Nick for the kick.”
At first, the Tar Heels did not need to dip into Fedora’s bag of miracles.
After taking a 21-0 lead, it appeared the defense had corrected enough mistakes to allow for the offense to rout the nation's No. 12 team off the field. But an Elijah Hood goal-line fumble at the end of the first half was the first sign of trouble and, sure enough, Jimbo Fisher’s team lived up to its reputation and made halftime adjustments. Just as they did against Ole Miss in the season opener, the Seminoles stormed back. Francois’ final touchdown capped a 21-point fourth quarter and 400-yard individual performance and Cook, the Seminoles’ explosive running back, eventually carved out 140 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
But there’s something special about North Carolina’s offense this season, which continues to overcome a defense that has allowed 30-plus points against every Power Five opponent not named Illinois in 2016.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky is quickly establishing himself as one of the nation’s top passers — in a conference overflowing with them — after passing for 405 yards and accounting for four touchdowns. It is the junior’s third straight 400-yard game with at least three scores. Rumors swirling around North Carolina’s program have hinted at Trubisky’s talent for years; in his first season as a starter, he’s proving every one of them correct.
It also helps throwing to a loaded receiving corps featuring Switzer, Howard, Mack Hollins and Austin Proehl.
“We knew coming into this week, with the looks they were giving us, that we could have some success offensively,” Switzer said of Florida State. “You’ve got to give credit to our O-line, especially No. 10 (Trubisky) back there who’s as composed as anybody I’ve seen. He stepped in the pocket and made some throws and I feel like the guys we got on the outside are as good as anybody in the country.”
North Carolina’s toughest road game, by preseason standards and overall talent level, is now in the books, delivering the program's second win over a ranked opponent in Fedora's tenure. This remains the meat of the Tar Heels’ schedule — Virginia Tech and Miami are looming as potential Coastal contenders — but the magnitude of this upset should not be underestimated. Last season’s Coastal title did not run through Clemson or Florida State, or any top-15 opponents. The last time UNC beat a top-12 win on the road? Syracuse in 1996.
There’s a long road ahead, particularly with the defense’s ongoing hiccups, but this is the loudest statement on record that the Tar Heels are poised to defend their division crown. The adrenaline is kicking in.